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New Oregon Health Authority program eliminates two-week quarantine for students in hopes to create more 'stability' for learners.

In an attempt to alleviate the quarantine burden, a new statewide protocol will allow students to continue attending in-person classes after known exposure to COVID-19 — as long as they test negative.

On Tuesday, Nov. 23, the Oregon Department of Education introduced the "Test to Stay" program that intends to reduce the number of students who miss school due to isolation after a COVID-19 exposure. Prior to the new protocol, unvaccinated children were required to be quarantined for seven to 10 days after coming in contact with the virus; now these same students can attend school as long as they test negative on two tests.

"We really do think (the test-to-stay program) will be a turnaround for our students and families and educators," Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education said in a press conference.

If a child is exposed, they will be offered a rapid antigen test paid for by the state.

The tests will occur as soon as the exposure is confirmed and then five to seven days later. The child is free to attend school between the two tests, as long as their first test was negative, they wear a face covering and they practice social distancing.

The Lake Oswego School District has had 125 positive cases since the start of the school year, while the West Linn-Wilsonville School District has had 85 cases. And while both districts are a part of the state's diagnostic COVID-19 testing program that works to prevent the spread of the virus, this new protocol would expand that.

Although the testing program will start as soon as Tuesday, Nov. 30, for some Oregon school districts the department of education has yet to cement a final start date for others, including LO and WLWV. Supply chain issues remain a concern.

"We have heard from our federal partners and from manufacturers that the supply will remain stable and adequate, but a nationwide COVID-19 surge could impact the supply," Gill said.

However, despite the delays, the new testing program is a relief to many people, especially educators who say students are missing out on valuable class time. Many staff also noticed an uptick in behavioral issues. As some kids are forced to ping-pong from in-person to at-home learning, students' social skills suffer.

"Everyone hoped that this year would be more normal. But of course it is certainly not," Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, said in a press conference.

Scott-Schwalbach referenced a conversation she had with a second-grade teacher who said their class's behavior was more aligned with kindergartners.

"It has left educators exhausted to a point we have not seen before," Scott-Schwalbach said. "(The program will) create the stability that we know our students need."

Another factor that could impact the new model is the labor shortage affecting many school districts. Gill said staffing challenges and increased responsibilities can be a tricky combination for some educators.

Collectively, the LO and WLWV school districts have 21 permanent teaching positions that need to be filled. As the teaching staff will be in charge of administering the tests, Gill encouraged community members to volunteer and alleviate some of the responsibility.

The program will be available until the end of the school year, unless vaccination rates increase and the program is no longer needed for its quantity. According to OHA data, 71.6% of children ages 12-17 and 24.4% of children ages 5-11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine in Clackamas County.

"We know the critical importance that school attendance has on student success," Gill said. "Using the test-to-stay as part of a layered set of protocols in schools will keep students and educators in classrooms, maximizing days spent in school learning, growing and thriving."

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