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Colleges move to online classes, but state says access to meals and health care is vital to many younger students.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Wearing protective equipment, workers sanitize classroom equipment and furniture Sunday evening, March 8, at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro.UPDATE: On Thursday, March 12, the governor's office issued guidance to schools, while banning all gatherings of more than 250 people.

Amid the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, state authorities are advising public schools and universities to disinfect, rather than shut down.

That didn't stop two universities and a private, all-girls school from moving all classes online.

St. Mary's Academy, Portland State University and the University of Oregon all announced Wednesday, March 11 that classes, course work and finals would be moved to a digital learning format. Oregon State University said it would also utilize remote learning and testing as much as possible, but remain open.

PSU said it would keep the campus open, to offer support services, but most classes and final exams would move to an online format, with a remote-learning plan to be rolled out by the end of the week.

St. Mary's Academy, a private, all-girls college preparatory school, announced that it will move to Extended Digital Learning for the week of Monday, March 16.

Under the system, teachers will conduct their classes online, and students will engage in small and large group discussions, participate in activities and complete assignments through an online platform from home.

As of Wednesday, there were no confirmed or presumptive cases of the coronavirus at St. Mary's, which is on Southwest Fifth Avenue in downtown Portland.

The closures were announced three days after guidance issued by state officials earlier in the week advised against school closures. On Sunday, March 8, the Oregon Department of Education, in tandem with the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Health Authority, issued guidance to schools and universities, urging them to disinfect, rather than shut down educational buildings.

"At this time, the guidance recommends against closing schools and campuses where no cases of COVID-19 are present," a joint news release stated. "It also recommends that schools, colleges and universities consider all alternatives before closing a school, college or university in the event that a COVID-19 case is detected among students or staff."

The rationale? Schools provide important instruction, and they also serve as the only access to health care and food for many homeless or disadvantaged students.

School districts throughout Oregon say they are monitoring the spread of COVID-19, and more thoroughly disinfecting areas, while encouraging students to wash their hands more frequently.

As of Wednesday, Oregon had 19 documented cases of COVID-19 since the first case was announced on Feb. 29.

During that time, three school districts in Oregon have been impacted by the virus. The first caused Forest Hills Elementary School in Lake Oswego to shut down after an employee there tested positive for COVID-19. The school was cleaned and re-opened March 5.

Athena-Weston School District in Umatilla County closed its school gym temporarily and hired a professional cleaning company to disinfect the space, after a spectator at youth basketball game tested positive for COVID-19.

In Hillsboro, South Meadows Middle School was cleaned last weekend, but re-opened as usual to students the following Monday, after a student there tested positive for the upper respiratory disease.

"The student was present at school on Tuesday, March 3, with mild symptoms before self-isolating at home," a letter from Mike Scott, superintendent of the Hillsboro School District, stated.

"We know many parents, students and educators are worried that COVID-19 will appear in their school communities. We want schools and universities to know there are steps they can take to prevent infection and keep students safe, healthy and learning in the classroom," Dr. Dean Sidelinger of the Oregon Health Authority said.

Prior to Wednesday, most Oregon college campuses stayed open, but Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, said Wednesday morning his agency would be issuing guidance to institutions requesting to move to an online-only model for the remainder of the academic year, as the University of Washington did Monday.

In Washington, schools quicker to close

Washington state has reported the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation.

Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction issued guidance on March 6, saying school districts there should be "actively engaging in contingency planning," but much like Oregon, recommended schools stay open unless a student or employee contracted the virus.

Despite that advice, a Seattle Public School District announced it would close for two weeks to prevent the spread of the virus.

Prior to the announced public school closure, one middle school closed its doors until further notice, after one of its staff members tested positive for the virus and Northshore School District in Bothell, Wash., went online-only, offering meal service pick up sites for student lunches and meal delivery to select families who were unable to travel.

According to state data, at least 13 private schools moved all classes online, while at least five colleges, including the University of Washington, and the Washington State University system, did the same.

At the state level Wednesday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings of more than 250 people.

This story has been updated with new information.

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