Oregon has done a good job of keeping the novel coronavirus pandemic in check and that’s in large part due to government restrictions, including mandating the use of masks and social distancing measures.
Our COVID-19 death toll of more than 1,400 would surely be worse if our leaders took a laissez-faire attitude. To be sure, our wide open spaces and other factors have played a role in Oregon’s success, but our state acted swiftly.
There have been costs to this approach, as increased regulations have damaged our children’s education and the economy. Schools are shuttered, and many children are struggling to learn remotely rather than in a traditional classroom setting. Businesses have been forced to close or modify operations and stores have lost sales, leading to rampant unemployment.
But the restrictions undoubtedly saved lives while we waited for a vaccine. Gov. Kate Brown deserves credit for prioritizing the public’s health and safety, making the tough calls and protecting Oregonians.
So Brown’s surprise decision on schools last week seems all the more perplexing. The governor announced that districts can decide to resume classroom learning in mid-February.
Currently, schools are bound by state metrics that measure county cases of COVID-19. Students in counties with high case counts are barred from returning to classrooms for in-person learning.
Most students had no hope of returning to schools anytime soon under the current standards, as they were nearly impossible to meet for many districts. And perhaps that was a good thing, since we’re in the midst of a pandemic.
Caseloads and hospitalizations had dropped recently. The Oregon Health Authority, for example, reported fewer than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases five times out of the last six days. But that could be a temporary lull — another surge could be on the way as the result of holiday travel and family gatherings.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, said he thinks the worst of the pandemic is probably yet to come, which should serve as a sobering statement, seeing as how 330,000 are dead across the nation.
Certainly, mid-February seems an odd time for schools to reopen, in part because spring break is just a month away on the calendar, but also because we’re unsure if teachers and their families will be able to be vaccinated beforehand. Educators will be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine after health care providers and other frontline workers. But so far, only about 26,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered statewide.
There’s no doubt that teachers can’t wait to return to classrooms — when it’s safe to do so. Teachers actually love teaching and helping students grow into better people. But the risks of returning to school remain heavy for the time being.
Many educators are at higher risk from the novel coronavirus, either because of their age or because they have common underlying health issues such as diabetes or asthma. And what about teachers who have spouses or other family members at home who fall into these categories? And remember, perfectly healthy people can contract the virus and get absolutely wrecked.
The Oregon Education Association blasted Brown’s decision, saying that it would create a patchwork of return plans and uncertainty.
“Instead of providing clarity for students, families and educators, Gov. Brown’s decision to abruptly end the enforcement of the state’s public health metrics will simply be another example of the continually moving goalposts in our fight against COVID-19 that has left so many Oregonians and Americans frustrated with, and distrustful of, our elected officials throughout the course of the pandemic,” said John Larson, president of the teachers union.
With her decision, Brown ducked out of a contentious debate, leaving districts and teachers unions to duke it out.
Some districts may adopt hybrid models as a compromise, but reopening schools in any fashion seems risky for teachers right now. If Oregon schools reopen before educators are vaccinated, some likely will contract COVID-19 as a result. And some will die.
It’s worth noting that many schools that opened with limited in-person instruction still had COVID-19 cases. What happens when dozens or hundreds of students return?