Brown signs order reopening Oregon classrooms by mid-April, shrugs off White House timeline

Brown pivots on COVID-19 death toll reporting after political backlash

All but six Oregon counties are slated to see students return to classrooms as early as next month by order of Gov. Kate Brown.

The governor signed the executive order on Friday, weeks after Oregon Senate Republicans held a one-day walkout protest over a list of grievances including that Brown should order teachers and students to return to classrooms.

State of schools

Oregon schools have had the choice to reopen since Brown granted them the authority to do so late in 2020. So far, 21% of K-12 schools have reopened while another 30% are offering part-time in-person instruction, the Department of Education reports, or about 174,000 students according to Brown. State colleges indicated last week they plan on resuming in-person instruction by fall.

Brown’s order flies in the face of concerns expressed by state teachers who have bristled at the prospect of returning to classrooms before being vaccinated. In a statement last week, Oregon Education Association heads urged local school districts to “continue to work in good faith with local educators” to develop public safety plans as the state expands in-person instruction.

When pressed by reporters during a Friday news conference, Brown said the order carries the full weight of her office, including the power to withhold state funding from non-compliant districts. She would not say whether she expected that to happen if negotiations between districts and teachers unions fall through, but she said the state would play it by ear.

According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, 30 Oregon counties now meet the state’s advisory health metrics for part-time classroom instruction for K-12 students. Five of those counties—Wheeler, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, and Wallowa—meet the advisory metrics for bringing back K-12 students.

Brown’s order follows through on a letter sent last week to Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen and state education boss Colt Gill, which directed schools to resume in-person classes for K-5 students starting March 29 followed by grades 6-12 by April 19. Families can still opt out if they choose.

“Parents, educators, school staff, but especially students have come so far while navigating the challenges of this pandemic,” Brown said. “Welcoming students back to every school across Oregon will be a milestone worth celebrating.”

Reopening classrooms safely hinges on promises from President Joe Biden this week that states will be supplied with enough doses to vaccinate every American adult by June 1, a month ahead of schedule. Biden has now directed states to expand eligibility to the general public starting May 1.

On Friday, Brown declined to place her full faith behind the accelerated timeline, which she said the state would only meet “if the doses are there.”

Brown’s order falls in line with recent CDC guidance which recommends schools resume in-person learning for districts seeing between nine to 49 new cases per 100,000 people over a week’s time. The CDC does not base its recommendations on vaccination rates among school staff, many of whom await shots in Oregon.

A survey from late last year by the Beaverton School District found 70.1% of parents wanted students at all grade levels returning to class part-time, while 29.9% disapproved of the idea.

By comparison, a national Morning Consult/Politico survey from February found 55% of registered voters liked the idea of K-12 schools reopening this fall once teachers were fully vaccinated. Just 34% were against the notion and wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.

Brown pointed to Oregon’s declining case rates and improving vaccination rates on Friday as justification for her decision.

State of the pandemic in Oregon

Following record daily high of 1,696 cases on November 30, reported infections statewide have plateaued since the winter holidays ended. Just 10 weeks ago at the start of 2021, the state’s 7-day rolling average of new cases was 1,149. As of Thursday, that rate was down to 295.

New hospitalizations from the virus are also falling. As recently as January 2, the OHA reported 466 hospitalized COVID patients. On Thursday, there were 121.

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said on Friday that state health officials estimate that Oregon’s February transmission rate declined to a reproductive rate of .83 per person.

If that level of transmission holds, Sidelinger said, Oregonians can expect a daily average of 170 cases and six new daily hospitalizations between March 17 and March 30. Should the state’s more contagious strains of COVID-19 take hold or if transmissions rise to 1.1 per person, Oregon could see daily case rates of 265, with 10 more daily hospitalizations, he added.

Getting more vaccines into arms

On Friday, the CDC’s COVID Tracker showed more people in Oregon have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 than have been sickened by it to date. Now, about 10.9% of Oregonians have received both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine while another 19.1% have received one shot.

The two-shot vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna being administered around the country are about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 symptoms. Doses must be taken four and three weeks apart for maximum protection, respectively.

As of Friday, the OHA reported that about half of seniors ages 65 and up have received shots since they became eligible for shots in mid-February.

Last week also marked the arrival of Oregon’s first 34,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. The OHA reports 15,400 of those doses were sent to local retail pharmacies including Kroger, Walmart, Costco as soon as this weekend. Another 4,800 doses are expected over the weekend.

The one-shot vaccine is 66% effective in preventing mild to moderate COVID symptoms and 85% effective in curbing severe illness and death 28 days after administration. It and other vaccines’ effectiveness against two of the fastest spreading COVID-19 variants are still largely unknown.

Adults ages 45 to 64 with underlying conditions, farmworkers, food processors, people in low-income and congregate senior housing, and the homelessness are next in line for priority vaccinations starting March 29.

To date, there have been 158,644 reported cases of COVID-19 in Oregon date and 2,319 deaths from the virus as of Friday.

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