FILE - Oregon School Buses

School buses in Oregon.

(The Center Square) — Oregon schools are now free to set their own guidelines for reopening classrooms, but many school districts in the state are still debating next steps before making any bold plans.

In December, Gov. Kate Brown announced the state would lift health restrictions by New Year's Day letting districts decide how and when they return students to in-person learning. 

According to Oregon Department of Education data from before New Year's Day, some 22,000 K-12 students were being taught in-person, or less than 4% of the state's 587,000 student body. Most were from small counties where in-person learning is permitted.

Oregon lawmakers also passed legal liability protections in December for schools in the state in December as a means of encouraging districts to reopen.

Brown set an optimistic date of February 15 for when Oregon schools could begin reopening as usual. According to the governor, the state also intends to prioritize the state's 70,000 K-12 teachers for its next round of vaccinations which has no start date.

Oregon's ongoing first phase of vaccinations is geared for health care workers, long-term care facility staff and residents, and a range of public employees.

The rollout is going much slower than expected following hiccups on the federal government's end and the state's own distribution.

In mid-December, Oregon Health Authority officials anticipated vaccinating up to 100,000 Oregonians before the end of 2020.

On Monday, the OHA reported 51,255 people in the state received their first of two COVID-19 vaccine doses since December 16 -- less than 30% of the supply the state reports having on hand.

The majority of vaccine recipients were white or of an unidentified race ages 30 to 59.

Oregon Education Association President John Larson decried Brown's decision in December, saying that "radically and abruptly" changing state health guidelines without input from teachers was unwise.

On Sunday, parents and teachers against reopening classrooms planted 500 red flags in front of Oregon school district offices in Portland representing teachers and students who died of COVID-19 in 2020.

On Monday, the OHA reported statewide positivity rates for COVID-19 were 7.1% with three counties—Coos, Umatilla, and Morrow—seeing rates of above 25%.

Those numbers are well above the strict 5% threshold Brown set last summer.

As of Sunday, Oregon has seen 117,745 cases to date and 1,500 deaths from the virus, the OHA reports. Another 109 COVID-19 patients remain hospitalized in intensive care units.

A number of Oregon school districts are already moving forward with plans to begin phasing in normal classroom instruction as early as mid-January, such as in Klamath County.

The Eugene 4J District also plans on conducting both in-person and remote learning by February. 

Others like Portland Public Schools have not committed to bringing students back to classrooms until February at the earliest.

The Salem-Kezier, Beaverton, and the Tigard Tualatin school districts plan on meeting this week to discuss pathways to reopening.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.