(Update: Adding video, Broadman comments; governor's office response)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Bend city councilors and councilors-elect, Bend-La Pine School Board members and other local officials wrote to Gov. Kate Brown, seeking more testing and K-5 classes restored in a month. But the governor's office says a surge in COVID-19 cases must ease for that to happen.
In the letter sent Wednesday, officials urged the governor to allow kindergarten through fifth-grade students to return to in-person classes on Jan. 4, and older students as soon as possible after that.
They are asking that the governor help strengthen COVID-19 testing at schools and help fund smaller class sizes to increase social distancing.
Councilor-elect Anthony Broadman put it this way: "This is a workplace safety issue, in order to facilitate getting our kids back to in-person school."
Broadman said creating a safe work environment is a top priority
Schools in New York City, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, are set to reopen next week, saying they are doing that by ensuring that workplaces are safe for staff and teachers.
In the letter council members stressed, "Workers and small businesses and families who depend on them will also continue to struggle if we fail to open schools, both now (as parents stay home to teach their children) and in the future (as we fail to adequately educate a generation of Oregonians). solving the current and growing economic crisis hinges on whether we can meet the current public health crisis."
"Kids who are already struggling, kids from families with fewer means or without access to reliable internet -- they're the ones that really bearing the brunt of lack of in person education," Broadman said.
He also maintained that flexibility was key in their proposal
"I think it's really important that families have the option -- if they don't want to send their kids back, if there's people with underlying health issues that don't allow them to return to work, we need to honor those health decisions," he said.
"I think that's part of it," he said. "None of this works without the workplace being safe."
A spokesman for the governor's office provided a statement Thursday to NewsChannel 21, holding to the stance that the surge in COVID-19 cases has to reverse before more children are back in class.
"With cases and hospitalizations spiking across Oregon, most school districts will need to remain in comprehensive distance learning," the governor's office said.
"No one disputes that getting kids back in classrooms will improve students' educational outcomes, as well as their social and emotional well-being." the response said. "But if we want to reopen schools and keep them open, we have to bring COVID-19 rates down to safer levels."
Here's the local officials' letter, in full:
December 2, 2020
Governor Kate Brown
State of Oregon
Director Colt Gill
Oregon Department of Education
VIA EMAIL ONLY
Dear Governor Brown and Director Gill,
Thank you for your tireless advocacy on behalf of Central Oregonians. We are confident that your efforts since March have saved countless lives and mitigated the spread of COVID-19. Without your leadership, we would surely be in an even direr situation.
We are writing to formally request that you further prioritize in-person K-12 education in Oregon, by overhauling current criteria for school reopening to recognize improved scientific understanding of COVID spread among children and opportunities to contain infection through screening and testing. Please consider (1) allowing elementary school students to return to in-person instruction on January 4, 2021, and (2) mobilizing available resources over the next 30 days toward a systematic testing approach focused on testing/screening students, teachers, and staff who choose to participate in in-person learning to prevent major outbreaks in schools and communities.
Our community, like most of Oregon, is encountering the darkest hour of the pandemic to date. But there is no more important institution in our community than education. We see this as an opportunity to refocus on centralized proactive testing as a way forward out of the current phase of the pandemic. Families and teachers have supported these measures across the country. This is a dynamic public health crisis. The science is young and challenging for us as policymakers to digest and act on quickly. But data now show that elementary schools do not significantly contribute to spread of COVID-19.
To that end, we ask that you:
- Centralize and emphasize community testing of students, teachers, and staff at elementary schools, striving to match or exceed New York City Department of Education goals of testing 20% of students, teachers, and staff who choose to participate in in-person school on a monthly basis.
- Open K-5 elementary schools on January 4, 2021, independent from county test positivity or county case rate, in consultation with public health authorities.
- Allocate and advocate for funding to ensure schools are as safe as possible for children and safe workplaces for teachers and staff, including ensuring that schools have the funding necessary to reduce class sizes in order to meet spacing and other health and safety requirements and funding for solutions and measures for teachers and staff unable to work in the classroom.
- Continue and strengthen, as needed, science-based restrictions and contact tracing on gatherings, businesses, and other sources of the spread of COVID-19 that have resulted in significant outbreaks.
- Implement measures to ensure older children can return to school safely as soon as possible after January 4, 2021.
- Prioritize opportunities for vaccination for teachers and staff as vaccines become available.
Kids from all backgrounds are suffering disproportionately from the lack of in-person education. But school closures are exacerbating the privilege gap, which is particularly concerning in communities like ours, where we struggle to serve our most vulnerable kids and families. Workers and small businesses and families who depend on them will also continue to struggle if we fail to open schools, both now (as parents stay home to teach their children) and in the future (as we fail to adequately educate a generation of Oregonians). Solving the current and growing economic crisis hinges on whether we can meet the current public health crisis.
You have been presented with an exceedingly difficult situation and led us admirably. We owe it to Central Oregon children and teachers to act on the data now available to us—to pivot from “treating schools like they are uniquely dangerous, when in fact they are uniquely essential.” We are confident that working together, if this effort proves misguided, we can nimbly adapt as Oregonians have done throughout this pandemic. Thank you for your leadership.
Sally Russell, Mayor of Bend
Anthony Broadman, Bend City Councilor-elect
Melanie Kebler, Bend City Councilor-elect
Megan Perkins, Bend City Councilor-elect
Rita Schenkelberg, Bend City Councilor-elect
Gena Goodman-Campbell, Bend City Councilor
Justin Livingston, Bend City Councilor
Bruce Abernethy, Bend City Councilor
Chris Piper, Bend City Councilor
Bill Moseley, Bend City Councilor
Barb Campbell, Bend City Councilor
Phil Chang, Deschutes County Commissioner-elect
Rep. Cheri Helt, HD 54
Carrie Douglass, Chair, Bend-La Pine School Board
Amy Tatom, FNP, Bend-La Pine School Board
Caroline Skidmore, Bend-La Pine School Board
Julie Craig, Bend-La Pine School Board
Shimiko Montgomery, Bend-La Pine School Board
Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend Chamber
 See attached Letter of Dr. Kate Broadman of October 13, 2020, compiling data; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/29/nyregion/schools-reopening-partially.html (“mounting evidence has shown that elementary schools in particular can be relatively safe, as long as strict safety protocols are followed.”)
 Id. at 1.