The Klamath Falls City Schools and Klamath County School District boards voted unanimously Thursday night to continue plans to reopen schools on Monday, Jan. 11, after clarification from the state threatened to ruin the districts’ plans.
The school boards hosted an emergency meeting Thursday night after the Oregon School Boards Association notified districts that liability protection granted by the state legislature protecting them in the case of COVID-19 spread in schools only applied to districts that followed the state health metrics.
On Dec. 23, Oregon Governor Kate Brown changed state health metrics from “mandatory” to “advisory.” After that announcement, the Klamath school districts made plans to start brining students back to school on Jan. 11.
The Oregon Department of Education is currently rewriting the guidance for school districts with plans to eliminate state metrics by Jan. 19, according to OSBA Executive Director Jim Green. OSBA has asked ODE to instead require districts work with local public health agencies to operate safely, which the Klamath districts already do and will continue going forward.
“I’m hopeful the changes will give districts the liability protection we thought we were getting with HB 4402,” Green said. Still, he offered a warning.
“You are going to assume some risk,” he said. “Even if you have liability protection, you may get sued.”
The Zoom meeting was at some points attended by 500 members of the public. The chairs of each school board read from hundreds of written public comments that had been submitted hours before the meeting.
Some suggested the school boards wait until Jan. 19 to reopen schools to ensure they are protected in case COVID-19 spreads within schools. Some suggested waiting until the target date the governor set for reopening schools statewide of February 15.
Other families pleaded with the boards in written comments to not make them tell their kids they actually aren’t going to school on Monday. Many said their children couldn’t wait to go back.
Jeff Bullock from the county school district read a handful of the 238 comments they received by the 4 p.m. same-day deadline. Of those, he said 215 expressed general support for opening on Monday while 23 expressed concern over the rush back.
Union presidents for each district also shared results from surveys they sent to teachers about their feelings on resuming some in-person classes on Monday and some of the concerns they had.
Marueen Lundy with the city schools union said a significant number of teachers are concerned that the Monday opening date is too soon. Klamath County has reported hundreds of new cases of COVID each of the last three weeks. From the survey she sent out to union-member teachers, she said 55% said they do not feel safe returning to school on Monday, while 45% said they do.
In the survey from the county schools union, 47% of union-represented teachers said they feel safe going back to school, 38% responded that they don’t and 15% responded neutral to the question.
The boards also heard from Klamath County Assistant Public Health Director Jessica Dale who told them that public health continues to recommend that the sooner kids return the school, the better for their overall health and well-being.
“The decisions we make today will impact children and their long-term health for years to come,” Dale said. “There are very comprehensive structures of mitigation strategies within our schools. There are quarantine procedures in place. Our districts have done a phenomenal job. ... The sooner we get kids back into buildings, the better it is for those kids.”
School nurses also shared their plans with the board for isolating anyone who became sick at school and how they report anyone they believe has COVID-19.
The state also announced Friday that K through 12 teachers will now be next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, after healthcare workers and staff and residents at long-term care facilities.