Good morning and thank you for being here.
I’m joined today by:
● Colt Gill, Director of the Oregon Department of Education; and
● Dr. Tom Jeanne, our Deputy State Epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Authority.
Just over seven months ago, I issued our Stay Home, Save Lives Executive Order. Since then, our entire world has fundamentally changed. Over the course of just a few months, life has transformed — for Oregonians, for Americans, and for people across the globe — as we have navigated this once-in-a-lifetime virus.
In the spring, I ordered all Oregon schools to close temporarily in an effort to help stop the spread of coronavirus in Oregon. It was a really hard moment in this crisis when we realized that measure was necessary.
From the very first case of COVID-19 in Oregon, I have used science to guide my decision-making. I have enlisted the state’s best doctors and public health experts to inform me and my team every step of the way. My top priority has been, and will continue to be, the health and safety of Oregonians.
When we temporarily closed Oregon’s schools, we knew it was going to be an incredible disruption in each student’s education. Schools are a centering place for connection, community, and comfort.
We knew it would be hard on teachers, who thrive on the energy of their students.
We knew it would be hard on students to be suddenly isolated from their friends and teachers and trying to navigate online learning overnight.
We knew it would be hard on parents too — but wow, I think we can all agree that it has been harder than any of us anticipated.
What we, as a country, have learned is that it is essentially impossible to work from home and teach your children a full day’s worth of school at the same time.
We have learned that this responsibility has disproportionately affected women, pulling them out of the workforce. For so many Oregonians, it can also be a matter of choosing between your child’s education, a paycheck, or a career.
We’ve also seen firsthand the challenge of serving low-income and underserved communities, struggling to make comprehensive distance learning work. Barriers to achievement that existed before this pandemic have been laid bare, and exacerbated.
Not every home in every county has reliable access to broadband or learning devices for all children.
And, unfortunately, too many students do not have a stable or safe place to call home.
You see, our schools do so much more than teach and inspire our kids. They make sure students who are hungry receive warm and nutritious meals. They are a place that cares for students and identifies those who are at risk or in need. They help provide support for students’ mental health and well-being.
Schools are truly at the center of it all: the personnel, the teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, and education support professionals who, every day, build the personal, individual connections with students that are so crucial to their lifelong success.
We have all done our best under extremely difficult circumstances.
And even under such incredible expectations, our students and teachers have risen to the challenge. Thank you to our teachers who are going the extra mile every single day.
We knew it was necessary to stay home and save lives. We knew we needed to figure out this virus, and how to fight it. And we knew we needed to ensure our hospitals were equipped to handle anything COVID would throw at them.
Oregonians made huge sacrifices along the way. I have been humbled and impressed with all of you.
Seven months later, we have learned a lot.
And one thing that is abundantly clear is that COVID is here. It is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
What’s also clear is we must prioritize getting our kids back into the classroom for in-person instruction. Too many of our students haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March. We can get them back in a way that minimizes risk to the greatest extent possible.
Doctors tell me that “zero risk” is not the way forward. It can’t be. Coronavirus is here. But we can be thoughtful and smart about minimizing risks so we can live our lives as safely as possible.
A core value of our schools is to place the student and their learning at the center of all decision-making.
Last summer, Oregon was one of the first states in the country to introduce public health metrics for counties to meet in order to open for in-person instruction. The Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority committed to review and assess those metrics based on science and data, and reevaluate them come mid-October.
Here we are today.
We have learned more from doctors and scientists about COVID-19 and how it spreads in schools.
Our updated metrics are based on the latest COVID-19 studies and data, are aligned with CDC recommendations, and bring Oregon in sync with the standards of other states like California. They also help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction. These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students. I will let Director Gill speak to the details.
However, I want to be clear that while we are making adjustments to the metrics, based on our best judgment of the science, they are not radical shifts. Not every school district across the state will suddenly be able to meet these metrics and reopen today. In fact, the vast majority of our students will not be able to return to class. However, close to 130,000 students will potentially be able to return to in-person instruction with these metrics, and that’s a really good thing.
For those districts that cannot yet return to in-person instruction, these metrics will serve as guideposts for where we need to get to so we can return our children to the classroom in a safe manner.
I know what you may be thinking. Oregon’s cases are rising, just like the rest of the country’s are — and frankly, cases around the globe. The “second wave” that we have all been dreading is here.
Today, the Oregon Health Authority will announce another daily record of cases, which will top 600. I will let Dr. Jeanne tell you more about the latest projections, which show that COVID-19 is spreading faster. This is a time to take one more deep breath and reflect on the steps each of us need to keep taking to keep ourselves safe.
The bottom line is we must turn the tide and reduce the transmission increases we are seeing in most parts of the state to be able to safely open all schools for in-person instruction.
In order to do that, we are ramping up testing and continuing to focus on contact tracing and supportive isolation. We will be launching another significant public education campaign focused on the main culprit of transmission— informal social gatherings.
I will have more details for you in the coming weeks on our continued efforts to drive down the spread of this disease.
As we focus on reopening for in-person instruction, it is also critical that our schools adhere to the same key practices we all use to stay safe from COVID-19. Due to the lack of any national guidance on school opening, every state has created their own framework for getting kids back into the classroom. OHA and ODE, working together and looking at successful reopening of schools throughout the world, created our “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” framework. Included in it are details for how to minimize risk in schools.
Personal Protective Equipment will continue to be distributed to educators and school staff, and a supply of masks will be available for all students should they need them. These measures build on the previous 5 million KN95s we distributed to schools in July.
We’ve also set up a secure, confidential hotline for anyone — teachers, parents, students — to call when they believe a school is not in compliance with safety requirements. Complaints can be filed anonymously through Oregon OSHA, and schools out of compliance with health and safety requirements will be subject to corrective enforcement.
Before I turn it over to Director Gill, we must stay vigilant in our efforts to continue stopping the spread of COVID as we work toward reopening more schools. I know we are all sick of hearing it, but that means we continue with more effort than ever: the hand washing, staying home when sick, mask wearing, and avoiding gatherings.
That last part is critical.
We are about to enter a favorite time of year for many with the holiday season. It is going to be really difficult to stay smart and avoid those large gatherings with family and friends. I crave those connections and celebrations so very much.
But we must keep working together to keep the spread of COVID down in our communities. Like I mentioned before, COVID is here. We must re-train ourselves to live in a way that minimizes risk and keeps us all safe.
With that, I will turn it over to Director Gill.