Parents, teachers opposed to reopening schools put up memorial outside Oregon school district offices

Those against resuming in-person learning put up hundreds of flags outside school district offices, symbolizing educators and children killed by COVID-19 nationwide.

As Oregon schools consider reopening to in-person learning, opponents speak out

January 3, 2021Updated: 8:44 AM PST January 4, 2021

PORTLAND, Oregon — Beginning this week, individual school districts and schools in Oregon can decide whether to go back to in-person learning.

Two days before Christmas, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote a letter to Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) directing them to implement new initiatives that put more students back in the classroom.

Gov. Brown said the state’s school reopening guidance is now a recommendation instead of mandatory. The announcement garnered both praise and backlash.

On Sunday, those against resuming in-person learning put up 500 flags outside various school district offices, symbolize the 500+ educators and children killed by COVID-19 nationwide. (To reach the 500+ number, organizers say they added children/student deaths to educator deaths, subtracting former and retired educators.)

Available data does not show where the educators and students who passed away contracted COVID-19.

The flags memorialize lives lost this past year while encouraging Oregon schools not to re-open in-person learning until COVID-19’s wrath eases.

“We can recover from distance learning,” said Ami Fox, a Portland Public Schools teacher and parent. “These [flags] represent the fallen educators and students- they don’t get to come back from this, ever.” 

“Online learning is really hard but, for me, it’s worth the work as long as my students are safe,” Julisa Rodriguez, a third-fourth grade teacher in Salem-Keizer School District, said. 

“I believe if districts cave it’s going to be a lot worse,” Ari Bubbett, whose first-grader experiences disabilities, said. “My kid can catch up but he can’t catch up if he catches coronavirus and dies.”

RELATED: Gov. Brown: Oregon schools can make decisions to resume in-person learning in 2021

They, too, worry about the toll the pandemic and isolation takes on kids.

“It’s been absolutely horrible. Yes, my kids’ mental health is suffering and I am terribly worried about them, as are all parents,” Lee Ann Moldovanyi, a parent of two Portland Public Schools students, said. “But opening schools is not the solution to that.”

By leaving it up to each school district to decide, Gov. Brown hopes more schools – especially elementary schools-  will move to in-person learning by Feb. 15. 

She asks districts to weigh local COVID-19 metrics, the needs of students and families and their ability to implement safety protocols. Gov. Brown wants educators and school staff to be considered essential and vaccinated in Phase 1B of Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Teachers and parents with the coalition Oregon Safe Return to Campus want to wait until that happens.

“Our teachers have the most important job on earth and to put their lives at risk before the staff and students are fully vaccinated is terribly unfair to them,” Moldovanyi added.

“The harm that it will do to our community, to the families, if we reopen without safety measures in place, without a vaccine to protect people, without proper ventilation – those numbers are going to be our flags here in our community,” Fox said, pleading with school district officials, “So I’m begging you to be brave under the pressure.”

However, many support the governor’s call.

“This is cause for celebration. This is a holiday present for Oregon families,” Rene Gonzalez, a parent and advocate for reopening in-person learning, told KGW after the governor’s announcement. “The needle moved here because parents and educators worked together to focus on the impact of closures on their children.”

Many have rallied in different parts of the state, urging state leaders and school districts to reopen classrooms.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children make up a total of .07% of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States and .01% of all child cases result in deaths, 

AAP says it appears severe illness from COVID-19 is rare in children/students but “there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects”.

RELATED: Oregon parents and students rally to reopen schools

KGW reached out to several local school districts and heard back from a handful on Sunday. Generally, they plan to stay in Comprehensive Distance Learning this coming week or through the end of the month.

District officials will meet to come up with timelines once staff gets back from winter break.

Beaverton School District

Beaverton School District will discuss the matter once they return from winter break this week.

David Douglas School District

The district school board previously decided to stay with distance learning through at least Jan. 28. A district spokesperson says they haven’t had an opportunity to “discuss the implications of the Governor’s announcement” but will likely address it this week. 

Hillsboro School District

A spokesperson says detailed communication with staff and families won’t be released until Jan. 13 after they’ve had a chance to meet with the governor’s office, ODE, unions, public health officials and its school board.

Portland Public Schools

A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools (PPS) says they will continue to remain in contact with Multnomah County and ODE about reopening. They want educators and school staff to have access to vaccinations before in-person learning resumes. PPS will update families and the community by mid-January on their plans.

North Clackamas School District

North Clackamas spokesperson Jonathan Hutchison says the district is actively developing a revised strategy but does not have imminent plans that they have shared with families yet.

Salem-Keizer School District

Salem-Keizer will be discussing the matter this week.

Tigard Tualatin School District

District officials will meet Monday and Tuesday as it they continue to build out their plans. They plan to share an update by the end of the week. 

West Linn-Wilsonville School District

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District plans to work collaboratively with parents, staff and health professionals on a timeline to reopen school using a hybrid (A/B rotation) model and the updated school guidance from ODE.

They plan to give families more information later in the week after staff return to work.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to say “children” instead of “students”, although opponents use the words interchangeably when referring to child deaths in the U.S.