New Oregon school reopening rules make it significantly easier to return to classes
Gov. Kate Brown announced revised reopening metrics for schools that would allow some districts to return to limited in-person learning.
In a press conference Friday, Oct. 30, Brown said the state is trying to prioritize getting children back in classrooms safely. The new metrics focus on county COVID-19 case rates, counts and test positivity and remove the requirement for statewide metrics to be met.
The announcement came as the state is poised to announce a new record high of 600 positive COVID-19 cases in Oregon.
"Doctors tell me that zero risk is not the way forward," Brown said. "It can't be. Coronavirus is here, but we can be thoughtful and we can be smart about minimizing risk, so that we can live our lives as safely as possible."
The new metrics expand upon the state's Ready Schools Safe Learners plan for public and private schools, and prioritize getting the youngest students back into classrooms in small groups.
According to the new criteria, which takes effect immediately, schools may return to regular, full time on-site instruction if the county's case rate is less than 50 cases per 100,000 people for 14 days, and the county's test positivity rate is less than 5%. For small counties with less than 30,000 residents, that means less than 30 cases for two weeks.
Schools may implement a hybrid model of learning, where students do some in-person instruction and the rest online, if their county has a case rate of 50 or more cases, but fewer than 100 per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate between 5% and 8%. For small counties, that means between 30 and 45 cases for the two weeks prior.
School districts are instructed to prioritize phasing in hybrid learning for kindergarten through third graders, adding additional grades up to sixth, the revised state criteria shows. If elementary schools can safely reopen under the hybrid model, middle and high schoolers would transition to the same model.
The new metrics also identify a "transition" period with specified health criteria for districts that are either preparing to return to schools under a hybrid learning model, or return to fully remote learning due to increasing case counts.
Portland's David Douglas School District sent a message to families pointing out that "Multnomah County does not yet meet these metrics, so David Douglas Schools will continue in Comprehensive Distance Learning for the foreseeable future. However, we do hope that these new metrics will allow us to reopen sooner than otherwise expected, but we do not yet know when that will be."
David Douglas said the district hopes the new criteria "allow us to at least partially reopen this school year."
The district thanked families for their "invaluable partnership" in distance learning. "We recognize how difficult this is for our families, and we commit to continuing to support you in any way we can," the message said
While the governor and ODE officials say the new metrics are mandatory and will improve learning for the state's students, teachers signaled concern over Friday's announcement.
"Nobody wants to get students back to the classroom more than Oregon's educators, but the process to bring those students back must be thoughtful and deliberative," John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, said in a statement. Larson, head of the statewide teachers union, predicted the new guidelines would only lead to increased virus transmission and lockdowns in the future.
But state officials say thousands of students already have gone back to school campuses safely.
Just over 52,000 students in Oregon already are attending class in-person, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said, and the state has yet to see an increase in virus transmission from that.
Gill later clarified that 133 schools in Oregon are fully on-site, and an additional 114 schools are open in a hybrid model.
"The metrics we created are still among the most conservative in the United states," Gill said.
"Not every district across the state will suddenly be able to meet these metrics and reopen today," Brown said. "In fact, the vast majority of our students will not be able to return to class, however, close to 130,000 students will potentially be able to return to in-person instruction with these metrics, and that's a really good thing.
In Multnomah County, for the week beginning Oct. 25, the county reported 63 positive cases per 100,000 people. The county is listed as "not yet eligible" by the state Education Department, but Clackamas and Columbia counties would be eligible to send elementary students back in person under the new guidelines.
"I know you may be thinking, Oregon's cases are rising, just like the rest of the country's are, and frankly, places around the globe," Brown acknowledged.
The governor said the state will look to ramped up testing and contact tracing, combined with another public information campaign, to try to reduce caseloads. She noted that small gatherings are still the main culprit of the spread of the virus.
If a school is not complying with the state's safety protocols, the state has established an anonymous tip line through the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration. To submit a tip about noncompliance, call OSHA's tip line at 1-833-604-0884.
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