DALLAS – Schools in the Dallas School District may not be opening for hybrid or full on-site learning until COVID-19 case counts in Polk County decline to less than 200 cases per 100,000 residents.
Kim Kellison, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said on Jan. 11 that Polk County’s rate of infection is 480 cases per 100,000 with a positivity rate of 10%.
“We are really going in the wrong direction,” Kellison said.
Gov. Kate Brown said on Dec. 23 that starting on Jan. 1, that the metrics that controlled whether schools could reopen were advisory, not mandatory, and that local school districts and local health authorities could make the decision to reopen.
However, that isn’t the only guide to reopening. Schools must follow guidance issued by the Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners protocol when they open to in-person learning.
“The important part about that is the Ready Schools, Safe Learners is still required guidance for us. It is not optional. Any reopening efforts we have need to rely on that guidance from ODE,” Kellison said.
Also complicating matters is a provision in House Bill 4402, which protects school districts from liability regarding COVID-19.
“Districts that open in the red zone for in-person instruction, when the virus numbers exceed 200 cases per 100,000, do not qualify for the liability protection,” Kellison said.
Superintendent Andy Bellando said he received a letter from Jim Green, the director of the Oregon School Boards Association, which works with the Special Districts Association and insurance provider Property and Casualty Insurance for Educators, which informed districts of the possibility of not having coverage if they opened with case rates too high.
“We lean on them for our risk management decisions. This is one that falls under risk management,” Bellando said. “If our insurance company is saying we would not have liability protection if we were to open to all students through a hybrid or full on-site instruction … as superintendent, I want to share with you that that is quite concerning to me.”
Bellando said even considering just the case numbers in the Dallas School District, not the county as a whole, the metrics are discouraging for reopening under any model.
“Our numbers are concerningly high, considering the local metrics, which we are doing,” Bellando said. “I want to help you understand that I can not advocate for opening our schools full or hybrid learning until we see these metrics go in a different direction.”
The numbers under which opening is acceptable may change. Bellando said districts were expecting an update from Brown on Tuesday. Also, the state is scheduled to begin vaccinating teachers and school staff on Jan. 25.
“At this point in time, we are just not low enough to offer hybrid or on-site learning for our kids,” Bellando said.