Coronavirus metrics will likely close school doors to most Oregon students
Most Oregon students will not be able to return to classrooms when school starts this fall if the state can’t slow COVID-19’s spread.
“We are not where we need to be to safely reopen schools,” said State Health Officer Dean Sidelinger at a news conference Tuesday.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday the release of county and state disease-rate criteria for in-person classroom instruction.
According to Sidelinger, the state is not meeting that criteria and only one county would be eligible if it were. Wheeler County has not had any positive tests, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
Schools’ models for fall classes remain a local decision but the metrics set criteria for when school leaders can consider in-person instruction, according to Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill at the same news conference.
“Predictability is not part of this pandemic,” said Jim Green, OSBA executive director. “While it’s extremely disappointing to weigh not reopening schools this September in some areas, we have to make hard decisions based on protecting the health of our students, our staffs and our communities.”
As disease counts have climbed, some districts have already announced they will open with distance learning only, including Hermiston, Lake Oswego, and Reynolds in east Multnomah County.
ODE guidelines released Tuesday require three consecutive weeks of 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 population and 5% or lower test positivity in the previous 7 days in a school’s county or counties. The state must also have a test positivity rate of 5% or less in the previous 7 days for three consecutive weeks.
Positivity rate is the percentage of those tested who have COVID-19. Case numbers can depend on how many people are tested, but positivity rates show the prevalence in a population.
From July 19 to 25, the positivity rate in Oregon was 4.8%. It was the first week below 5% since the end of June and the first time it had gone down since the middle of May.
The guidance offers a less restrictive standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 for operating K-3 classrooms and remote and rural schools with 100 or fewer students. Recent evidence shows children younger than 10 are less susceptible to COVID-19 and less likely to spread it. The guidance also offers exceptions for groups named for limited in-person instruction in ODE’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance.
Brown said the criteria are meant to acknowledge that not all Oregon looks alike as well as address equity challenges.
Green praised the recognition that schools in rural areas may be able to open sooner than schools in more populous areas.
The guidance includes metrics for when schools with in-person classes must start considering distance learning only and when they actually have to shut down in-person classes.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Brown also announced the release to public school districts of $28 million from the federally supported Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The money can be used for technology, online curriculum and teacher training.
Last week, the Oregon Education Association released its request for minimum requirements for school reopening. Teachers unions across the country have expressed concern about educators going back to classrooms. Although students are less susceptible to COVID-19, many teachers fall into high-risk categories.
In addition to requirements laid out by ODE and the OHA, the teachers union wants a school’s county to be in Phase 2 of Brown’s reopening plan, which includes declining disease prevalence. Currently only Clackamas, Lincoln, Multnomah and Washington counties have not been approved for Phase 2.
ODE’s metrics are based on recent school-focused studies of COVID-19’s spread.
Tigard-Tualatin School District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said the metrics will help the community understand the district’s choices.
“It gives me the science and the confidence that I can make solid decisions,” she said.
Tigard-Tualatin draws staff and students from Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties. Under the metrics, Tigard-Tualatin would not be able to open – not even close.
Rieke-Smith expects to open with distance-learning only, offering two options: a fully self-paced online-type school or a teacher-directed distance learning model that could morph into a hybrid model when it’s safe to return to school. The district will look at offering some in-person classes to its most marginalized and disadvantaged students.
Tigard-Tualatin will likely be in distance learning for at least the first nine weeks of school, Rieke-Smith said.
“We are now in the business of being public health advocates, and we’re an extension of our counties’ health systems,” Rieke-Smith said. “Not only are we trying to educate kids, we’re also managing public health.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA