Oregon launches COVID-19 testing program to stay in school, ends outdoor mask mandate
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Oregon’s long-sought “test-to-stay” COVID-19 program announced Tuesday will move schools one step closer to a more normal year by reducing the number of disruptive quarantines.
The Oregon Health Authority also ended outdoor mask requirements, but its director couldn’t say when metrics to end indoor mask rules would be available.
Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen revealed the latest coronavirus developments in a joint news conference.
Under the new testing program, asymptomatic staff and students will be able to go to school and participate in extracurricular activities if they test negative for the disease immediately after an exposure in school and again in five to seven days. Schools will offer the free test regardless of insurance or immigration status.
Test to stay applies only to exposures within schools, where layers of protocols reduce the risk of spread, Gill said. Staff and students who are exposed outside school or during extracurricular activities must still quarantine, Gill said. Students who were exposed in school but tested negative must still maintain quarantine when not at school and wear a mask at school and activities.
COVID-19 exposure quarantines have forced thousands of unvaccinated students into distance learning for seven to 14 days, depending on school and county rules. Schools have been asking for the testing option.
“We’ve consistently pressed our state leaders for responsible steps that protect the public health while keeping more students in class,” said Maureen Wolf, OSBA Board president. “We support these moves and will continue to advocate for extensions of local control for our members.”
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said he is excited about the program. He met with local health authorities Tuesday morning to start planning before the official announcement.
The district, with nearly 5,000 staff and students, had quarantined nearly 300 individuals through the start of November, according to Public Information and Communications Coordinator Lindsey McDowell.
Although many COVID-19 policies have met political resistance, Witty expected his eastern Oregon community to embrace testing. Families can opt out of testing if they prefer to follow quarantine protocols.
Not only will the program help keep more students in classes where they learn best, it will also ease the burden on families who must cope with child care and other issues when their children are not in school, Witty said.
“It creates a more equitable situation because really not all families are organized in a way to manage the quarantines the same,” he said.
The test-to-stay program using rapid antigen tests is immediately available and ties into ODE’s diagnostic testing program that about 170 districts are already using.
Allen and Gill reminded people that vaccinations remain the best way to avoid quarantines as well as prevent community spread. Asymptomatic vaccinated students don’t have to quarantine after an exposure.
Allen also announced that OHA is ending the state requirement to wear masks outdoors. Gill said schools are no longer required by the state to mandate masks outdoors, but local leaders could set their own rules based on school conditions. He encouraged schools to consider how and where students are in proximity outdoors.
Allen said that although Oregon’s COVID-19 situation is improving, the state is not “remotely close” to ending indoor mask mandates. OHA is still likely weeks away from even being able to identify metrics for ending indoor mask requirements, Allen said. The disease’s unpredictable nature and continued high hospital-usage rates made it unwise to set expectations that could then change, he said.