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Health advisory recommends pausing practices or reinstating masks; warns of 'serious threat' to in-person learning

PMG PHOTO: MILES VANCE - Wilsonville High School senior guard Karina Borgen makes a pass during a basketball game Dec. 30. After advising schools that athletes could remove masks during games, the state is now asking schools to require them for all extracurricular activities, or to pause sports and club meetings altogether. As Oregon's education and health agencies warn that the omicron variant of COVID-19 may have crippling impacts on schools, the agencies recommended the pause of extracurricular activities.

In a school health advisory Monday, Jan. 3, the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority called the need for layered mitigation strategies like vaccinations, boosters, frequent hand washing, masks and distancing at schools "more critical now than at any other time during this pandemic."

The state agencies are asking schools to either 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."

The recommendation comes as school sports, music and theater performances have fully resumed, with in-person spectators at live events.

In the same advisory, the state agencies simultaneously advocated for a "shorter" seven-day quarantine period after exposure to the coronavirus, to keep students and educators in the classroom as much as possible.

This is different from the recently updated CDC guidelines for shorter quarantine periods. The state agencies said they are consulting with the CDC to find out what the new guidance means for schools.

Under current directives, if a student or staff member shows symptoms of COVID-19 or is a close contact of someone infected, they must stay home. A new test-to-stay protocol slated to take effect this month would allow them to return to school on the eighth day of quarantine, as long as they test negative five to seven days after exposure.

"As Oregon fully experiences the impacts of the omicron variant over the next several weeks, student access to in-person instruction is under serious threat," the health advisory states. "While early data indicate that the Omicron variant may result in less severe disease than previous variants, it is increasingly clear that the omicron variant spreads much more quickly and easily than all previous variants."

The OHA and ODE are urging school districts to partner with healthcare providers to offer vaccine clinics and encourage eligible students to get their shots.

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