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Crook County uptick in cases during past two weeks will not put a halt to in-person education

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A Crook County High School student is given some hand sanitizer on his way into the building. This is one of several safety measures now in place at the schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A recent uptick in local COVID cases last week was threatening to pause some in-person education in Crook County, but school district leaders have announced that no changes are planned.

Oregon Health Authority reported 11 new cases in Crook County during the week beginning Oct.11. Even more cases emerged this past week with 26 cases reported between Monday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 25.

According to existing state metrics, if the number of cases for this past week was eight or higher, it would force Crook County School District to return grades 4-12 to online learning only. To keep those grades in the classrooms, the county must have seven or fewer cases, have 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 people, and have a county test positivity rate of 10% or less for two consecutive weeks.

However, this past Thursday, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson announced students would remain in school despite the uptick in local cases.

"Despite a rising COVID case count both locally and nationwide, Crook County schools will remain open next week and into the foreseeable future," she said. "In addition to the district's current waiver request, changing metrics are expected to be announced soon from state officials and will allow our district's schools to continue operating in the current models."

The waiver she referenced was requested in a letter Johnson sent Wednesday to Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education. The decision to ask for the waiver was made after meeting with officials from the Crook County Health Department and learning that the 11 cases two weeks ago were all identified, traced and confined and that more than half of the cases occurred within a defined group, and testing is complete. In addition, the health department reported that there is no community spread.

"This district is extremely diligent about following the guidelines to make sure we stay safe so we can stay open," Johnson said. "But it's important to look beyond the numbers and find out what's really going on. Based on feedback from local public health officials, none of the cases are connected to our schools, so we don't believe our students should be forced back to distance learning."

In her statement Thursday, Johnson acknowledged that she is "privileged to be a part of a statewide leadership team helping design a more flexible way of looking at COVID metrics and implications for school operations."

"Although the final methodology is still in development, I can confidently say, that based on what we know now, I don't see a school closure in our near future," she said.

While she expects Crook County schools to be allowed to continue in-person education, she stressed the importance of continued vigilance in schools and cautioned families and the community against letting their guard down.

"Flexibility shouldn't be misinterpreted: As one of the few school districts in Oregon open for students, we have learned important lessons about how to 'fine-tune' management of COVID activity," she said. "We continue to pay close attention and adhere to precautionary measures, limit exposure, conduct contract tracing, and report any risks. In addition, we are in daily contact with our local health department and incorporate their advice on every move. Our number one aim is to keep students and staff safe, even if numbers rise.

"Please keep in the forefront of your mind that COVID is still a dangerous disease, and we strongly urge people to take the advice of public health authorities and use common sense to protect themselves, our community, and our schools from infection. That's what will get us back to normal operations faster than anything."

Healthy Schools Reopening Council meets

The Healthy Schools Reopening Council met Wednesday to review the steps Oregon will need to take to return more students to in-person instruction in schools.

"Returning to in-person instruction safely is key to ensuring Oregon's students are receiving a high-quality education that prepares them for lifelong success," said Gov. Kate Brown. "But our schools and our educators do so much more than teach and inspire students. Our schools provide warm and nutritious meals to hungry students. They are health centers. They provide for students' mental health and well-being. And, at the center of it all, are the teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians and support professionals who, every day, build the personal, individual connections with students that are so crucial to their lifelong success."

When the council met Wednesday, only two counties currently met Oregon's metrics for in-person instruction for all grades. Oregon, as a whole, was also exceeding the statewide 5% positivity rate maximum allowed for schools to move forward with reopening, although that metric was suspended last month due to the recent wildfires. Seven counties, including Crook, currently meet the metrics for some in-person instruction for K-3 students, although before case counts increased, as many as 20 counties were eligible to resume in-person instruction for K-3 students.

In order to return more students to classrooms throughout Oregon, the council identified three main areas of work. They include review of the metrics to return to in-person instruction to reflect the latest data and best practices learned from other states, ensuring that school districts are prepared to effectively implement the Ready Schools, Safe Learners health and safety protocols for in-person instruction, and driving down community transmission so that schools can reopen and stay open.

"It's on all of us to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, so we can open schools and keep them open safely," Brown said.

And as online education continues to be necessary throughout Oregon, the council sought to identify inequities in distance learning. In addition to focusing on historically underserved students who already faced systemic disparities in education, the council considered parents who can't stay home because they work in essential sectors like the service industry, construction, manufacturing and agriculture.

"Not every home in every county has reliable access to broadband or learning devices for all children," Brown said, "and unfortunately too many students do not have a stable place to call home. These are the kids who need in-person instruction the most."

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