As COVID-19 case counts continue to rise throughout the State of Oregon, Governor Kate Brown has announced what metrics school districts must meet in order to reopen for in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year.
During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, July 28, with Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist and state health officer, as well as Oregon Department of Education (ODE) Director Colt Gill, Brown addressed the need for in-person instruction this fall and said the State has been following guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which states that ‘only with low rates of disease and adequate safeguards in place should schools return to in-person instruction.’
“Good schools improve health and we need to be cautious so schools don’t become places where the virus spreads,” Brown said.
In June, the State started creating guidance for school districts in Oregon, giving them three options: all in-person instruction, all distance learning instruction, or a hybrid model, which is a mix of both in person on online instruction. Brown said planning for the next school year will still be a local decision for school districts.
However, the state has created new requirements/metrics that will help school make decision based on health data, Brown said. These metrics were detailed by Dr. Sidelinger.
“Parents and guardians need to have confidence that they will not have to risk their children’s health for the sake of their learning, or the learning for the sake of their health by sending kids back to school,” Sidelinger noted. “There’s no simple statewide answer for Oregon. We need to get our students back to class, but how we do it depends on a number of important factors.”
The State has considered several factors when coming up with their metrics. Factors include: Prevalence of the virus in the particular community, availability of testing, capacity of their local health care system and readiness of local public health to contain outbreaks that may occur.
The first metrics include the level of disease the State would prefer to see in a concentrated area in order for schools to reopen safely. Ideally at the state level they will look to be at or below five percent of positive tests over seven consecutive days for three weeks.
At the county level, schools can open for in person instruction if cases drop below 10 per 100,000 people in the population in the proceeding seven days for three weeks. Additionally, positive tests must be at or below five percent during that time.
Sidelinger listed several exceptions to this metric. First included in-person education for students kindergarten through third grade.
“Studies show that our younger students, particularly those in kindergarten through third grade and kids under 10 years old, have lower rates of illness and transmission than older children and adults,” Brown said. “Providing nurturing and in-person relationships and learning to our youngest children is absolutely critical to developing the reading and language skills and social development necessary for their long term success.”
The second exception is for remote and rural districts with under 100 students, which will be permitted to offer on site instruction. These communities often lack online capabilities for distance learning and are in smaller cohorts, according to Sidelinger.
The third exception is for students with disabilities or specific education needs, who will be permitted for on-site education.
Sidelinger said the exceptions may be utilized only if the virus is not actively circulating in the community, meaning the rate in the specific county is less than 30 cases per 100,000 people in a week for three consecutive weeks and the test positivity is at or below five percent for three weeks.
The second metrics were created if in face case counts continue to increase. If cases are at 20 per 100,000 people or higher or the positivity rate exceeds 7.5 percent, schools will begin planning to potentially move to distance learning.
If case counts reach 30 per 100,000 people or higher and the positivity rate exceeds 10 percent, schools should move to distance learning, according to Sidelinger.
Currently, the state of Oregon is at 50 cases per 100,000 people and the test positivity is approaching five percent. Meaning case rates are higher than they should be to reopen schools, said Sidelinger.
In May, the Oregon case rate dropped to 1 case per 100,000 people, which gives Sidelinger optimism that the state can get back to that transmission rate.
“We all have a role to play,” Sidelinger said. “Gather in small groups, keep your distance and cover your face. We’re seeing some glimmers of hope as Oregonians follow these guidelines… The total number of cases began to decrease in the past week, hospitalizations are leveling off and our test positivity is declining.”
Brown said the state will continue to take a ‘cautious and careful’ approach to protect public health when reopening in-person instruction in schools. She also stated equity continues to be at the forefront of their decision making, saying that many students have struggled to receive high level education since schools originally closed.
“I am absolutely unwilling to lose an entire school year for kids,” Brown said. “A year that could be foundational to the life-long opportunities for thousands of Oregon students. I will push... and I will demand nothing but excellence from our districts and educators. But it is also incumbent on all of us to take every measure to slow the disease so that we can get our kids get back into school as soon as possible.”
With that in mind, Brown said she has decided to dip into the Emergency Education Relief Fund by releasing $28 million for public schools to use for distance learning. The funding will be used to provide mobile hotspots for students, computers, online curriculum and teacher training.
ODE Director Colt Gill also address the potential of online/distance learning for the fall year but made a point in saying that distance learning in the fall will be different than it looked in spring, as many school districts rushed into a new curriculum model.
“This fall’s comprehensive distance learning guidance has rigorous requirements for teacher training, family engagement, a common platform for students in each school, daily engagement between educators and students, social, emotional and mental health supports, access to quality grade level curriculum and assessment of student progress through Oregon’s academic content standards,” Gill said.
Gill said they are also addressing inequities for some students in rural communities by creating requirements for access to technology, school meals and help for students with specific learning needs. The State funding will address the needs directly.
With a plan for distance learning in place, Gill said the main goal is still to return to in-person instruction.
“We all, as Oregonians, have a part to play in that,” Gill said. “Opening school to in-person instruction is not a one way journey. If cases increase in local communities, schools will need to move back to comprehensive distance learning to further mitigate spread in that community.”
Follow daily developments here online and in-depth reports in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.