Thousands of Oregon elementary school students — including in Clackamas County — could be headed back to the classroom this fall, thanks to new, substantially more flexible Covid-19 safety standards state officials unveiled Friday.
The new metrics significantly lower the benchmarks by which Oregon measures whether counties may reopen their schools for in-person instruction. Based on projections this summer, the previous metrics — which were among the strictest in the nation — would not have allowed schools to widely reopen until next April, it was estimated.
These new metrics allow K-6 students to return for hybrid in-person learning if the county case rate is fewer than 50 per 100,000 residents over two weeks and the county test positivity rate is between 5 and 8% over the same period.
If counties maintain the same case counts while also dipping below 5% in test positivity rates, districts would be permitted to reopen in-person learning for 7-12 grade students as well.
The Oregon Department of Education said it is relaxing the standards because of nationwide data demonstrating measures school districts can take to successfully protect student and staff health and well-being during in-person instruction.
“These metrics offer an intentional and measured approach to returning to in-person instruction while recognizing the importance of meeting our kids’ academic needs — and allow for in-person instruction in places of our state where the risk of Covid-19 is lower,” said ODE Director Colt Gill. “They also set a North Star for the rest of the state to work toward.”
The new more flexible metrics take effect immediately, but when or if schools reopen will be up to local districts.
Although most schools in the Portland metro area still would not meet the standards for reopening elementary schools, Clackamas County does.
It is also within striking distance of reaching the marks for reintroducing older students to in-person learning, having spent 24 of the last 26 weeks with a test positivity rate less than 5%.
State officials decided to allow elementary schools to reopen first because classes are generally smaller, students have fewer contacts outside of school and home, and they are easier to cohort.
Based on this week’s data, the new standards potentially allow close to 130,000 students to return to some in-person instruction, the ODE said.
On Friday, Canby Superintendent Trip Goodall said the district will need some time to evaluate its reopening plans in light of the new guidance from ODE. Metrics in neighboring Marion County may also impact Canby, as 14% of the school district’s staff lives in Marion County.
“We know there is much to consider before we can transition into a hybrid learning model,” Goodall said in a message to families. “We must work with our associations to ensure staff are prepared to return to our schools.
“We are beginning to create new bus routes to provide transportation safely. We need to evaluate our planned cohorts to ensure class sizes can accommodate social distancing in our schools.”
In a press conference Friday morning, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the new metrics are aligned with CDC recommendations and bring Oregon in sync with the standards of other states, including California.
“They also help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction,” Brown said. “These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students.”
Though the state has relaxed its benchmarks for reopening schools, it has not eased the strict guidelines for how they must operate amid the continuing pandemic.
That means keeping class sizes small and maintaining distance between students and teachers, requiring universal mask use and enforcing frequent hand washing and other cleanliness standards. Classrooms must be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and they must offer good ventilation and airflow.
“These metrics depend on the public doing its part to reduce Oregon’s case rates so that all of our children can return to in-person instruction,” Gill said. “Oregonians can reduce spread and send our kids back to school by wearing a face covering, maintaining distance, washing hands frequently, and avoiding group gatherings.”
Strict screening protocols will also have to be implemented to spot new outbreaks and quickly isolate confirmed cases as well as any students and staff who may have been exposed.
Parents will have the option of continuing distance learning if they choose.
Nearly 50,000 Oregon students are already taking part in in-person learning, and while around 25 students or employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, there is little to no evidence transmission actually took place at school, Gill said.
During the week that ended Oct. 24, the most recent for which the state has made a report, only one student at a private school tested positive and no students or employees at public schools that operated in person had a new confirmed case of the virus.
Nevertheless, the decision to loosen school reopening guidelines comes just as the virus is surging to new highs in the state. Oregon reached a new high for daily cases Thursday with 575, less than a week after setting the previous record of 550.
Oregon was among the very first states to create metrics for returning to in-person instruction in early August. At that time, they were based in large part on successes seen in other countries.
Later, exceptions were added to make a return to in-person instruction possible for more and younger students, in areas where there was a lower risk of Covid-19 transmission.
Gill predicted the state’s new “measured” approach will be welcomed by students and families alike.
“Judging from my email, many parents are ready for in-person instruction,” Gill said. “We’re hoping for buy-in from the bulk of the community.”
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