In the fall of 2020, many of the loudest voices in the Central Oregon education world were from parents frustrated at Bend-La Pine Schools for not reopening classrooms after they’d been shut down since March due to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
But last week, after the school district revealed plans to return to in-person learning in late January and early February, the parents, students and teachers worried about returning to school made their voices heard. They believe bringing back in-person learning while local COVID-19 case counts are still rising and a large majority of teachers aren’t vaccinated isn’t the right decision.
Teachers and family members sent about 20 letters to the Bend-La Pine School Board in the past few days, concerned about the district’s reopening plan.
One of those parents was Raquel O’Leary, who said she cares for a few family members who are immunocompromised. Therefore, she couldn’t send her children back to in-person school before teachers are vaccinated.
“Simply put we cannot risk the lives of our elders by sending our kids back to school and the school district should be ashamed that they are putting families in this situation,” O’Leary wrote Tuesday.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday afternoon that all K-12 school staff would be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations starting Jan. 23. However, there are questions about how quickly the hundreds of Bend-La Pine teachers could receive both shots needed to become immune to COVID-19.
At the moment, Deschutes County is seeing another bump in COVID-19 case counts after a small dip in late December, according to county health department statistics. If Brown still required school districts to reopen based on state-approved metrics, Bend-La Pine would be firmly in the “red” category — meaning it would have to stay closed.
At Tuesday night’s Bend-La Pine School Board meeting, board member Shimiko Montgomery questioned returning to in-person learning before all teachers were vaccinated.
She suggested pushing back the start of elementary school — currently planned for Jan. 25 for grades K-3 and Feb. 1 for grades 4-5 — by two weeks, to give ample time for as many teachers as possible to get vaccinated.
“It seems like we could wait a couple weeks, after we’ve waited this amount of time,” Montgomery said Tuesday night.
During the lengthy board meeting, Superintendent Lora Nordquist repeatedly stated that with the school district’s planned intense COVID-19 precautions, staff could safely teach students in person.
She also noted that Sisters Elementary and all Crook County schools, as well as some local private schools, have held in-person classes for months.
“I had families reach out and say St. Francis (of Assisi Catholic School) is opening another class,” Nordquist said Tuesday night. “I have a hard time justifying, why all these other schools, and why not us?”
Large groups of teachers at two local high schools have already stated they wish to wait to return to school until all teachers are vaccinated. Nearly 50 Summit High School teachers, or 67% of that school’s unionized staff issued that statement publicly Monday.
Fifty-five Bend High School teachers signed a similar letter, sent to the board Tuesday. That letter states that of the 95% of certified school staff that responded to a survey, 83% said Bend-La Pine should wait to return until either all staff are vaccinated, or local COVID-19 case rates fall to a safer level.
“Returning on February 9th is not safe and responsible,” the letter stated.
Some local students are also pushing back against Bend-La Pine’s planned reopening.
In an online petition posted Jan. 7, Jade Jager — a senior at Bend High School who is also the co-founder of the Bend 4 BLM social justice activist group — demanded that Bend-La Pine keep classes online until local staff and students are vaccinated.
Jager, 17, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As of Wednesday, more than 2,000 people have signed the petition. The top comment on the petition comes from Summit High School junior Jace Bracelin: “I’m not going to be the schools district (sic) guinea pig.”
Despite some blowback, Bend-La Pine leadership appears to be sticking with the original reopening plan — at least for elementary students. If local case counts continue to rise, the return of middle and high school students could be delayed, Nordquist warned at the Tuesday night board meeting.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that we get our elementary students in, and then see what’s happening over the next few weeks,” she said.