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Oregon Governor Gives Conditional Go-ahead To School Sports, Pressures Schools To Open Classrooms

The Phoenix High School boys' varsity soccer team plays Valley Catholic in this 2019 file photo.
Photo by Anne Redding 
The Phoenix High School boys' varsity soccer team plays Valley Catholic in this 2019 file photo.

A day after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and health officials announced that 10 counties would be able to relax restrictions on certain business and social activities, state leaders signaled another area where COVID-19 limitations will be softened to allow more activities: scholastic sports.

Under new guidance, student-athletes in K-12 schools and at smaller colleges will be able to join their counterparts at larger universities where practices and games have been going on for months.

“This has been a difficult year for Oregon’s youth athletes and, as our COVID-19 numbers have dropped, I have been committed to working with our health experts to reevaluate our protocols for sports,” Brown said in a written statement announcing the change.

But Brown cautioned that, as with other rule changes, the allowance for more athletic activity will “proceed with caution, to ensure that teams are following health and safety precautions to protect our athletes, their families, and their communities.”

For 11 counties in “moderate risk” or “lower risk” of COVID-19, outdoor contact sports “can resume following health and safety guidance to be issued by the Oregon Health Authority.”

For the other 25 counties in Oregon, including the more populated Willamette Valley, the rules call for “high risk” and “extreme risk” counties to “opt-in” to outdoor sports.

In order to run games, schools and sports organizations in those counties must follow certain protocols for on-site testing. They also will have to collect information for contact tracing. And they must offer waivers “identifying health and safety risks,” and must commit to isolation and quarantine in the event of COVID-19 exposure. Indoor sports are still prohibited under the new guidance “due to the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

In addition, Brown is calling for schools in the higher risk counties to take steps toward reopening classrooms to in-person instruction. The announcement says school districts “must have at least limited in-person instruction occurring, with the goal of achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction for students this school year.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Brown clarified the limited in-person requirement to OPB in an email, saying that simply offering limited instruction at some schools in a particular district is not sufficient to allow outdoor high school sports across that district.

“[T]he expectation is that individual schools in Extreme and High Risk counties that opt in for outdoor contact sports and develop plans to meet the health and safety protocols outlined in our press release will also implement limited in-person instruction at that school, and will continue to work towards a hybrid or full return to in-person instruction,” said the governor’s communications director Charles Boyle.

The requirement that schools offer some level of in-person instruction and move toward reopening classrooms in order to run outdoor sports is clearly an effort by the governor to press schools to resume in-person instruction, which some weeks ago she said should start by Feb. 15. Brown acknowledged that sports fields might host games even as some schools remain largely closed, a disconnect she’s calling on parents to help resolve.

“To all the parents of student athletes and coaches who have called and emailed me in the last year asking for school sports to resume, I am challenging you now to devote your energy to making sure in-person academics can resume for your kids, too,” Brown said.

Parents of student-athletes are applauding Wednesday’s announcement allowing more student-athletes in Oregon to play contact sports.

“We are very happy to see the Governor following the science and removing significant barriers to children returning to sports,” said Rene Gonzalez, one of the co-founders of the parent group ED300, in an email to OPB.

However, Gonzalez also blamed the governor for 11 months of canceled sports and noted that Brown’s announcement delegates decisions on school athletics to local districts.

Gonzalez’ message finds Brown’s solicitation of parent involvement “surprising.”

“Thousands of parents have been calling and writing to the Governor, OHA, ODE and their districts for months on the harm caused by closed schools and disruption of co-curricular activities,” Gonzalez wrote.

At the same time that the governor rolled out new guidelines for school and youth sports, the Oregon Health Authority is allowing more athletic activity at small colleges. OHA is calling for colleges in NCAA’s Division II and Division III, along with NAIA schools, to “submit health and safety plans to resume college athletics.” The expectations for those plans are consistent with what Division I universities have been doing, and they resemble what state officials are expecting of school and youth sports: testing, contact tracing plans, as well as isolation and quarantine procedures in case of positive cases.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.