Unless metrics change, students won't be back for at least another month
(Update: Adding video, comments by rally participants, latest numbers)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Just as dozens of Bend parents gathered for a "reopen the schools" rally at Bend-La Pine Schools' headquarters in downtown Bend Monday, last week's continued spike in COVID-19 cases delayed in-person learning for K-3 grades by yet another week, until at least Nov. 2.
The rally was one of several taking place in Salem and across Oregon, pleading for Gov. Kate Brown to let districts reopen schools.
But Deschutes County reported 70 new COVID-19 cases last week, just one fewer than the previous week, further delaying the ability to meet the state school-opening metrics.
In a statement, Lora Nordquist, the interim superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools, said, "I empathize with families who believe their children need to be in school. We are committed to meeting every requirement from the Ready Safe Schools guidance from the Oregon Department of Education.
"We have no option except to follow the metrics established by Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority. Under those guidelines, we are not able to reopen our schools for in-person instruction at this time.
"We are committed to opening our schools in a balanced/hybrid model when we meet the metrics established by the state," Nordquist said.
NewsChannel 21 spoke earlier Monday with Jonathan Haffner, the single-parent of a sixth grader at Cascade Middle School. He said it has been difficult to watch his daughter struggle with the transition into online learning.
“Back in March, she was a thriving 11-year-old, doing gymnastics," Haffner said. "And I had to pull her out of it.”
Haffner said not being able to socialize with her friends and teachers in person has taken a toll on his daughter's mental health.
“I’ve seen it first-hand," he said. "Sitting in a room by themselves, looking at an iPad is better than nothing, but it’s still not good, and I think we’re going to discover this as more data comes out."
His daughter, Jackie, told us she wants to return to school.
“I don’t want to wear a face mask, that's for sure," she said. "But I’d rather wear a face mask in school than stay online. I just feel kids my age, especially, should be with their friends.”
Haffner and his daughter were just some of the dozens of people who showed up at Monday's rally on Bond Street.
Julie Paige was among a few others who attended to oppose the idea of reopening schools until it is safer to do so.
“This is a life-or-death situation," she said. "So then it becomes a little less important that kids are having 'circle time,' and more important that people have their lives protected."
Paige said she wants teachers Bend-La Pine teachers to know how much they are appreciated, but that it's just too soon for students and teachers to return to an in-person classroom setting.
"I really want our teachers in the community to know how much we love them, and how hard we know they've been working to revamp their way of teaching in a short amount of time," she said.
The school district is required by the state to meet the following county metrics before they can reopen: there must be no known cases of COVID-19 in the schools, there must be fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 in Deschutes County for three weeks in a row, and the positive test rate should be at or below 5% for three weeks in a row.
Bend-La Pine posted new weekly metrics guides Monday that show county cases last week were 35.8 per 100,000 residents, and while the positive test rate did drop, to 2.7%, it means the earliest possible move from distance learning to the balanced hybrid (part-time in class) model for all grades is now the week of Nov. 2.
Along with the rally, organizers were urging parents who support schools reopening to log out of online classes for one day, on Monday, to make clear their views.
Marc Siegel, the communications director of the Oregon Department of Education, sent the following statement to NewsChannel 21 Monday.
"The guidance for returning to school for the 2020-21 school year contains community health metrics that were established to facilitate a safe reentry into schools. These metrics are aligned to information from the Centers for Disease Control and exist, in part, to keep our high-risk populations safe.
"Entering a school for instruction, for extended periods of time, is a different context than the activities people share where risk can be significantly mitigated through the use of Personal Protective Equipment.
"Please know that, alongside parents and teachers, ODE is anxious for the day that the health metrics for all communities will allow all students to return to in-person instruction full time.
"Oregon’s metrics were developed in August and will be reviewed again this month, after a review of data from Oregon schools, other states, research, and guidance from the federal level. The CDC came out with guidance for when to open to in-person instruction on Sept.15, Oregon’s metrics align with these metrics," the ODE statement said.
Late Monday, Gov. Kate Brown called a news conference for 11:15 a.m. Tuesday "to discuss Oregon's efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19." She'll be accompanied by Oregon Health Authority officials. A livestream will be available at this YouTube address.