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Things have changed a lot since the pandemic first arrived nearly two years ago

Crook County School District is fast approaching the one-year anniversary of when they re-opened all schools to full-time in-person education. The move was an outlier at the time as many school districts throughout the state had kept to online learning or a limited amount of in-person school time.

Fast forward a year and the school district has continued to not only maintain in-person learning, it has, like most districts, managed to resume a mostly normal school sports schedule, complete with fan attendance. This was even possible during the surge of the delta variant, a more contagious and more dangerous form of the original COVID-19 virus.

But now schools are facing another challenge as the omicron variant has hit Oregon – hard. The variant, more contagious than delta but reportedly less virulent, is causing record daily infection totals and threatening to interfere with school activities.

As students return from winter break statewide, the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education have made a recommendation that school districts pause extracurricular activities or keep the same rules in place that are followed during the school day, like wearing masks. The use of diagnostic testing and vaccinations is also recommended, if sports or other group activities continue.

"If schools and other organizations proceed with extracurricular activities, especially as these activities move indoors and individuals are unmasked, they should expect rapid transmission of COVID-19 that will prevent students from participating in in-person learning due to isolation for those that contract COVID-19 and lengthy quarantines for those that come into close contact with infected individuals," the health advisory message warns. "This risk should be clearly communicated to families participating in these extracurricular activities."

As of this writing, only one district has pulled the plug on extracurricular activities, and it appears for now that Crook County School District will join most others in moving forward without cutting activities.

Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson said that the district has prioritized in-person learning and maintaining safety protocols since the pandemic began, and she believes the district's COVID-19 Safety Plan, developed in collaboration with the Crook County Health Department, remains effective and will help schools navigate the newest surge.

"We'll remain vigilant and make adjustments if necessary as we look to local medical professionals for feedback," she said, adding that at this point, there are no plans to move to distance learning or reduce after-school programs, activities or sports competitions.

This is the right move at this time. Things have changed a lot since the pandemic first arrived nearly two years ago. Vaccines against the COVID-19 virus are widely available to kids and adults, as are boosters for those who are eligible to receive them. In addition, the district is participating in a Test-To-Stay program where unvaccinated students who are exposed to the virus and have no symptoms can stay in school if they test negative for COVID.

School leaders should stay the course. They should continue to pass out masks at the school doors and give kids a squirt of hand sanitizer. They should continue to err on the side of caution and keep kids with COVID symptoms out of school buildings.

What they should not do is pull the plug on in-person education or extracurricular activities – unless it is deemed necessary by local health officials or is mandated by the state. There is mounting evidence that students not only desire but need social interaction, not only with peers but with teachers, coaches and other adult mentors. Cutting off those contacts has been linked to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, and should therefore be viewed as a last resort.

Crook County School District found a way last school year to buck the state trend, keep school doors open and keep most extracurricular activities whole. They are equipped to do it again and unless their hand is forced, they should.

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