The Banks School District offices. Photo: Chas Hundley

Thousands of Oregon students could be back in classrooms by Feb. 15 under a new plan issued by Governor Kate Brown on Wednesday that will turn control of school reopening to local school districts. 

Until now, district reopening plans have been tied directly to COVID-19 metrics within the county the district is located in; under the new directive, beginning Jan. 1, that mandate will be advisory only, and districts will choose whether to reopen or not, Brown said in a press release. 

The hope, Brown said, is for more students to be back in a physical classroom by February 15, especially elementary school-aged children. 

The decision to reopen schools will be in the hands of local districts, but Brown urged Oregonians to take measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus in order to create an environment where schools can reopen safely. 

“Each and every Oregonian must do our part now to be disciplined and vigilant, to socially distance, wear facial coverings, avoid large gatherings, and follow other necessary public health requirements. The alternative is for Oregonians to remain at risk from the disease for far longer, and for perhaps 90% of Oregon’s students to continue on the unpromising path of spending the remainder of their school year locked out by this virus from their classrooms and youth activities where they best learn, grow, and find connection, safety, and support,” Brown said. 

In a letter to the heads of the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education, Brown said that the benefits outweighed the risk of getting students back in classrooms.

“The long-term benefits of both heading off an emerging mental health crisis for our children and youth, and addressing the academic challenges that are becoming prevalent for far too many students in the absence of in-person learning, now far outweigh the short-term risk,” the governor said. 

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It’s not yet clear how this will impact Banks School District’s reopening plans; any reopening will likely be planned with input from parents and in negotiation with unions that represent Banks teachers and school staff. District staff could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Oregon is in a minority of states that have a state-level prohibition on school reopening; according to research from Education Week, 36 states have left in-person education decisions to local control. On Jan. 1, Oregon will join those states.

“The greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us,” said Brown.