Revisiting state COVID metrics for schools is the right move
Those who haven't yet witnessed how Crook County schools are operating during the pandemic, it is quite an exercise daily vigilance. All students are greeted at the door by a staff member with a thermometer followed by a hand sanitizer stop. No mask or face shield, no entry.
Elementary school kids are kept to their classrooms, even during lunches, and when they go out to recess, they are required to stay in specific zones that rotate each day. Middle and high school students are divided into blue and gold group, with one group attending classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It can't be easy or fun for students or staff to keep this up week after week, but it seems to be working. So far, almost two months into the school year and no outbreaks or COVID cases have reportedly originated at the schools. Given the reputation that schools have as breeding grounds for colds and other mild illnesses, that is pretty impressive.
That is why it's good to see the governor and other state officials revisiting their very restrictive school reopening metrics. When they were first revealed in August, the pathway for grades 4-12 to go school was pretty steep – counties had to have 10 or fewer new COVID cases per week for three straight weeks AND the state's positive test rate could not exceed 5%.
At the time, Crook County was among the bright spots in Oregon when it comes to COVID cases, but it still wasn't good enough – until the positive test rate was suspended, allowing grades 4-12 to start attending classes early this month.
Staying in class was a bit easier, but still difficult. Counties could not exceed seven new cases on consecutive weeks or 30 cases per 100,000 people, and during that two-week stretch, the county positive test rate could not exceed 10%.
Crook County exceeded the caseload threshold two weeks ago with 11 new cases, and last week, saw an uptick to more than 20 cases for the week (official numbers were not available by press deadline).
While that is concerning from a community health perspective, one thing that county health officials stressed is that none of the cases were attributed to the schools. But if state guidelines remained unchanged, it wouldn't matter. Through no fault of the school district, students would have to return to online learning.
Thankfully, that is not what happened. Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson announced late last week that schools will remain open into the foreseeable future, thanks to the work of a statewide leadership team with which she is involved. The team is helping design a more flexible way of looking at COVID metrics and implications for school operations.
This is a smart move. If schools aren't the problem, it is better to keep them open. It makes it easier for parents to go to work, it keeps students connected to their teachers – the ones who are trained to educate kids – and it keeps kids connected to their peers.
Hopefully, when revised metrics get revealed, they will strike a balance that enables schools that are not spreading the virus to keep students in classrooms. As hard as the staff and students are working to prevent the spread, they deserve that level of grace.
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