Gatherings larger than 250 people canceled until April 8
Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday restrictions on large public gatherings. (Photo courtesy of Gov. Kate Brown's office)
In the face of more COVID-19 cases, Gov. Kate Brown has banned all organized public gatherings larger than 250 people until April 8 but has recommended schools stay open.
All school group activities should be cancelled, however, she said during a Thursday morning news conference.
The goal is to reduce social contacts, flattening the curve of infection from the novel coronavirus so health agencies can handle the new cases.
“These steps can save lives,” Brown said Thursday. “That is what is at stake.”
Executive orders that affect workplaces and care facilities as well were announced in a late Wednesday news release, and school leaders were still scrambling to respond Thursday.
Tigard High School abruptly postponed a long-planned all-day Unity Day program Thursday that included large student workshops. About 15 minutes into the first period, Principal Brian Bailey announced over the intercom that the school near Portland would shift to a normal school day, even though most students didn’t have their supplies and instructors had not planned on teaching.
Spanish teacher Jacquelyn Youngerman did her best to reassure students and answer their questions, but she admitted she had never faced a situation like this before.
The governor’s guidance, as well as Oregon Department of Education guidance, told schools to cancel all nonessential school-associated gatherings such as parent meetings, field trips, competitions and extracurricular activities.
Schools have been told the regular instructional day should be “business as usual,” said Tigard-Tualatin School District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith.
She suggested that the governor or health authorities should explain to worried parents and communities, though, why large gatherings are banned but schools, many larger than 250 students, can continue.
It is easier in a school setting to maintain the social separation recommended by medical experts, according to ODE officials.
Schools are closely monitoring their students, but public events bring together people from different social circles who have not been screened, setting up more possible disease transmissions.
In Umatilla County, a casino worker who attended a basketball game at Weston Middle School was the first confirmed case there. The game was not affiliated with the Athena-Weston School District’s teams.
Tigard-Tualatin is now closing its fields and buildings to community partners.
“Our school facilities are off limits for the next 30 days,” Rieke-Smith said.
Beginning Thursday morning, the Oregon School Activities Association limited state championships event attendance to participating students and coaches, essential event staff and credentialed media.
Oregon schools are still trying to determine whether family members will be allowed to watch. The NCAA has closed its March Division I basketball tournaments to all fans except family members. The NBA has suspended its season.
On Sunday, OHA and ODE recommended against closing schools where there have been no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The agencies advised schools to consider options other than closing even if a case appears.
The release suggested social distancing strategies, such as staggering recesses and lunch periods, in addition to more aggressive cleaning and health screening.
ODE has created a coronavirus page that includes advice and resource documents for schools and families in eight languages. An OHA page offers up-to-date information on the outbreak. The National School Boards Association, which this week canceled its planned April 4-6 annual conference in Chicago, also offers resources and tools.
Seattle Public Schools closed all schools for two weeks beginning Thursday, but health authorities have generally recommended against closing schools. Schools are the source for meals and health care for many low-income students. Online learning presents equity questions for students who don’t have access to computers or the Internet.
“Consideration of school closures should be a last resort,” Brown said during her Thursday news conference.
COVID-19 has not been fatal for children, but older family members who might be asked to care for young children staying home are at high risk.
InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said superintendents are discussing how to implement the new rules.
“It’s not a question if we do it, but how we do it,” he said.
The ESD has started safe distancing practices, such as staggered work schedules and keeping 3 feet between people in small group meetings. All staff are being asked to clean their work areas. He also said the ESD has encouraged people dealing with this additional stress to use the employee assistance program.
Beyond student safety, school leaders must consider budgets, personnel, scheduling, logistics, professional development and so much more while the realities of the pandemic are rapidly shifting, Mulvihill said.
“We’re trying to find that sweet spot between proactive strategies and plans and reacting to the ever-changing aspect,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA