Oregon Governor Announces Closure Of Public Schools For Rest Of School Year

By Dirk VanderHart

UPDATE (Thursday, April 9 at 10:30 a.m. PT) — Public schools will not reopen again this school year, as the state works to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday.

In a widely anticipated move, Brown extended a March school closure past its April 28 expiration, ensuring that students and teachers will not congregate in person before summer break.

“This decision is important because it is about safety,” Brown said at a press conference in which physical attendance was strictly limited. “It is first and foremost to protect our kids and teachers. It is impossible to adhere to social distancing measures in our classrooms and schools.”

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Brown also announced new Oregon Department of Education guidelines for graduating seniors. The rules ensure that students will graduate on time if seniors were expected to pass their courses. The guidance also asks that teachers work with students who were struggling prior to schools closing on March 12, so they can also receive diplomas.

That could involve students working with school districts through August in an attempt to bring themselves up to a passing grade, ODE Director Colt Gill said. 

“We want them to know one thing for sure. That is that we believe in them,” Gill said of Oregon seniors. “We know that they can succeed.”

In response to reporter’s question, Brown also announced a notable change involving a new business tax meant to pay for K-12 schools in Oregon.

In preparation for an extra $1 billion a year to pay for services statewide, school districts have been preparing to hire new employees. But in the face of a hit to state revenues that could be as high as $3 billion in the two year budget cycle, the state has told districts “to put those plans on ice,” Brown said. 

The move was the first public hint of a step the governor quietly took in recent days: Implementing a hiring freeze on  vacant, “non-critical” positions in state agencies. 

Brown’s decision to extend the school closure, expected for weeks, follows Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement on Monday he was closing his state’s public schools for the year. Idaho’s State Board of Education reached a similar decision Monday, as well. It comes as Oregon officials have voiced cautious optimism that a March 23 “stay home” order has helped to slow transmission of the COVID-19 disease in the state.

As of Wednesday afternoon, state health officials had reported 1,181 confirmed cases of the disease in the state, along with 33 deaths. But while the number of cases has ticked up reliably each day, modeling suggests the state’s health care resources won’t be overrun if it continues on the current trajectory.

The closure of schools does not mean that students won’t receive instruction between now and the end of the school year. The Oregon Department of Education last month issued a “distance learning for all” plan that seeks to ensure districts around the state continue to teach students in times with no recent precedent. Districts have been employing that guidance with mixed success.

State testing had already been canceled for the year.

Still unclear is whether school districts will have to cancel graduation ceremonies that have been planned around the state. Gill said officials are waiting to see what happens with the coronavirus before making that decision officially.

Brown’s announcement had the approval of state school officials. Julia Brim-Edwards, a school board member for Portland Public Schools, called on the governor to close school buildings and support distance learning in a Wednesday morning tweet, when the decision appeared imminent.

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said in a statement he supported the governor’s decision to issue blanket graduation requirements.

“We firmly believe in local control, but in these unprecedented circumstances a statewide approach is both equitable and cuts through a lot of red tape,” said Green, noting it was “sad to think of” graduation ceremonies possibly being canceled. “Taking this step now gives students and schools needed certainty that those all-important diplomas have been earned and are being issued.”

This story has been clarified to reflect that high school graduation ceremonies have not been canceled definitively.