Governor announces relaxed coronavirus metrics for schools
More than 100,000 additional students could access in-person instruction under less restrictive coronavirus metrics released Friday, Oct. 30, according to the Oregon Department of Education, but soaring Oregon case counts could blunt the changes when new numbers are released Monday.
The new metrics announced by Gov. Kate Brown in a news conference raise the county case thresholds for in-person instruction and remove the state test positivity consideration.
The metrics are intended to create a baseline for safely opening schools based on the latest scientific evidence while allowing school districts and local health officials to make decisions about what is best for their communities, according to ODE.
“Health and education leaders are walking a tightrope,” said Mary Paulson, OSBA deputy executive director. “We are balancing strong feelings in many communities about getting kids back in school versus the need to protect the health of students, staff and the public.”
Education leaders are still awaiting action by the Legislature to address COVID-19 legal liability related to having people in schools.
“We appreciate the measured approach of Gov. Kate Brown and other authorities, but we hold strong concerns about the need for COVID liability protections so our schools don’t face unwarranted lawsuits in carrying out their responsibilities,” Paulson said.
The metrics have been contentious from their beginning in July when they forced many schools to rethink plans for the fall. Some schools, especially in rural areas without local COVID-19 cases, have pushed for exemptions, and the Adrian School District sued for the right to hold in-person classes.
ODE offered dozens of exemptions related to the wildfire disruptions, but it has resisted ruling on school situations on a case-by-case basis.
The new guidelines, housed in “Ready Schools, Safe Learners,” give more consideration to local conditions.
Schools can offer K-12 in-person instruction in cohorts of 20 students if their county has fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate below 5%. Cases will be measured over the previous two weeks, rather than over the three one-week periods in the old metrics.
Once the metrics are met, schools have a 14-day window in which they can open even if the measures spike again.
The new metrics allow K-6 in-person instruction in counties with 50-100 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate between 5% and 8%. Schools in these counties will be able to phase in the upper grades if in collaboration with local health officials they are able to avoid cases in their schools and show the county’s cases are far removed from the school.
The new metrics set up transition numbers for going into or out of distance learning, but schools in counties with more than 200 cases per 100,000 must use distance learning. The limited in-person instructions will still be allowed, though.
The Coquille School District in Coos County is one of the districts that will be able to add fourth to sixth grade in-person instruction under the new rules. The district already had K-3 in school under the previous metrics’ exceptions.
“We’re excited to be able to get more of our students back in our schools,” said Superintendent Tim Sweeney. “It’s not going to look like traditional school yet, but it gets closer all the time.”
Equity and the support systems that schools offer students are driving forces behind the desire to get students back into classrooms.
Sweeney said one of his district’s major concerns is the drop in meals it is providing. All students in his school are eligible for three meals a day. Last September, the district provided almost 30,000 meals, he said. This September it was down to 8,000.
He said returning grades fourth to sixth was especially important to working families who were uncomfortable leaving children that age at home alone to do their schoolwork.
Sweeney said school leaders understand the dangers of COVID-19 and the need for safety protocols but they also have to consider the burden distance learning places on students and families.
Health concerns for the safety of students, their families and the staff who must teach them, many of whom are in high-risk categories, collide with the ripple effects of distance learning.
COVID-19 is just one of many risks students are facing right now, said OSBA Board President Kevin Cassidy, a Baker School Board member. Students are suffering social and emotional damage without schools’ support systems, he said.
The relaxed metrics do not mean safety standards are being relaxed, he said. Rather, they acknowledge a growing understanding of how COVID-19 spreads and balances that against the other potential harms students and families face in distance learning, including academic, economic and mental pressures.
Right now, coronavirus cases are soaring around the country and in Oregon, increasing the risk for students, families and teachers. For the week of Oct. 19, the Oregon Health Authority recorded 2,642 new cases, a record for the pandemic and up 14% from the previous week.
Brown and the Oregon Health Authority continue to plead with the public to wear masks, limit social gatherings and observe social distancing for the sake of the schools. COVID-19 cases that closed Oregon schools striving to offer in-person instruction have been traced back to private gatherings, often without proper mask and social distancing protocols.
Cassidy said he appreciates the governor giving schools an opening to offer in-person instruction if it makes sense in their area, and now it’s up to communities if they want their children to stay in schools.
“There is an acknowledgement and a desire that we need to try to get back into the classroom to the best of our ability,” Cassidy said. “The community needs to be a partner to this in order for it to work.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA