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Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had recommended keeping schools open, since public schools provide food and health care for many low-income students.

PMG PHOTO: CHRIS OERTELL - Workers sanitize classroom equipment and furniture Sunday, March 8, at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro.Top Multnomah County officials say adding early school closures to the measures already put in place by state officials to combat COVID-19 would represent Oregon's "best chance to slow the spread of the virus."

The statement, issued jointly on Thursday, March 12, by the chair of the state's most populous county, Deborah Kafoury, along with one of the state's most prominent voices on coronavirus, county Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, ups the pressure on state officials to embrace what Brown, earlier in the day, called a 'last resort.'PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury speaks at the COVID-19 press conference.

Kafoury and Vines issued their statement in response to the Portland Tribune asking whether they agreed with Multnomah Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor, who called for immediate closures earlier today.PMG FILE PHOTO - Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor, believes the state should play it safe and slow the spread of disease by closing schools

"The schools need to close," Meieran said, saying Oregon should follow the example of Washington state, where three major counties were ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee to shift to alternative remote learning by March 17.

Meieran cited the high transmission rate of viruses among schoolchildren and the need to prevent health care facilities from being overwhelmed as they have been in other countries.

"If our systems are overwhelmed, then more people will die," she said.

Meieran said there are more doctors who agree with a public statement issued by dozens of local doctors calling for immediate school closures, but who have not gone public.

"I'm getting lots of calls from lots of colleagues saying, 'Why aren't we closing schools?'" she said, adding that arrangements should be made for nutrition and alternative learning. "If we take the right proactive measures we can still lessen the impact tremendously."

New pressure on state

The county statements up the pressure on Gov. Brown.

Earlier in the day, she told reporters that Oregon should wait to close schools until it's absolutely necessary.

"Considerations of school closures will be a last resort," Brown said at a press conference at which Kafoury and Vines also spoke.PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dr. Jennifer Vines, Tri-County Health Officer, talks about social distancing and a ban on mass gatherings during a Thursday, March 12, press conference on the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Sunday, March 8, the Oregon Department of Education, along the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Health Authority, urged schools to disinfect and "consider all alternatives" before shutting down schools.

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.

The rationale for keeping schools open is that schools provide important instruction, and also serve as the only access to health care and food for many homeless or disadvantaged students. Beyond that, closing schools means working parents taking days off; students being at home alone; or crowding students into daycare facilities.

"The reality is, it's critically important for our children to remain in school to get the education they need," Brown said Thursday, responding to reporters' questions. "Several schools provide both breakfast and lunch, and in (some schools) we have health providers on campus."

Some schools not waiting

Some schools have not waited for the state to change policy.

The board of Tigard-Tualatin School District met Thursday night, March 12, and voted to shut down until March 31. Leaders there described it as a reaction to Brown's ban on gatherings of 250 or more earlier in the day.

"When a number was put to the size of a gathering, you have now just described a typical day at an elementary school," Sue Rieke-Smith, Tigard-Tualatin superintendent, said.

Not long after, Lake Oswego School district followed suit.

Private schools including St. Mary's Academy and Central Catholic High School in Portland have announced they will cancel on-campus classes and instead use a virtual learning model, at least for the next month.

Kafoury and Vines did not put a timetable on when closures should happen, except to say it should be "early" rather than late and to suggest planning should begin.

"We can see what is coming. Italy, Seattle, New York," said their statement, issued by a spokesperson. "Kids do not appear to suffer (from the) severe disease, but we believe that early school closures, in addition to the social distancing measures announced today, is our best chance to slow the spread of the virus. We also know that the community is asking for direction on this question as soon as possible.

"We worked closely with the state on recommendations to limit mass gatherings so we would have a unified response. And now, we are ready to work with parents, school districts and the state to be prepared for this drastic measure.

"Because of existing social inequities, we know that school closures will affect people differently. We have thousands of kids who rely on school meals, and many who have no access to virtual learning. If or when we take this step, it would come with planning around kids who need a safe place to be during the day and kids whose parents are healthcare workers who will need to be at work.

"Those consequences are real but we cannot back down from tough conversations when the stakes are so high."

(Courtney Vaughn contributed reporting to this article.)

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