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Elementary schools in the metro area can bring students back while following safety rules.

PMG FILE PHOTO - School districts got new, reopening guidelines Tuesday, Jan. 19, but it's up to districts to make the decision to allow students to come back to school buildings.

Schools got new reopening rules Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 19, that eased guidelines enough to allow elementary school students in the metropolitan area to get back to school buildings.

In a much-anticipated announcement from the Oregon Department of Education, the parameters around COVID-19 infection rates were relaxed somewhat, especially for the youngest students based on Harvard Global Health Institute recommendations. Still, the infection rate metrics are only advisory and school districts have the ultimate decision about reopening or not.

Earlier in the pandemic, to reopen buildings, schools had to follow a strict set of parameters tied to infection rates. Those metrics left districts in the metro area unable to reopen as COVID-19 infection rates remained stubbornly high.

Then on Dec. 23, Gov. Kate Brown announced that the metrics were advisory only and districts could decide for themselves when it was safe to reopen.

To reopen, districts still have to follow 164 pandemic safety rules, including "diligent entry screening," 35 square feet of space per person in the classroom, six feet of space between people and a limit on how many people a student could interact with during a school day.

The safety guidelines mean that, at best, schools can offer some sort of hybrid approach with only part of a school population in the schoolhouse at once.

The new infection metrics announced Jan. 19 say schools can welcome back elementary students if there are fewer than 350 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people averaging over 14 days and the test positivity rate is less than 10%.

According to the latest statistics from the Oregon Health Authority, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties' rates would allow elementary students to return under the more relaxed guidelines of Jan. 19. The most recent coronavirus test positivity rates are 5.3% for Multnomah, 6.7% for Washington and 6.6% for Clackamas.

A Portland Public Schools spokesperson said district administrators were reviewing the guidance and would not have a comment until they could digest the material.

If students and staff return to school buildings and their community has higher numbers than the guidelines, "schools must offer access to on-site COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students and staff identified on campus as well as those with known exposure to individuals with COVID-19."

Testing could be an issue in reopening plans. Earlier the Oregon Health Authority said students would have to test themselves for COVID-19 if they exhibited symptoms or had been exposed. Students would swab themselves, with a "trained" adult supervising.

A query to the OHA to see if that policy had changed was not answered by press time.

With the new guidelines, the ODE said it's important that community isn't "regularly" introducing new coronavirus cases in the school.

With spring on the way, ODE also released guidance for holding class outdoors in places like covered play areas.

If schools open, but their county has higher infection rates than the guidelines, schools must offer the testing at the school building and also offer distance learning to families who want that option.

Some metro-area districts have announced that they will open the schoolhouse door a crack, allowing a very limited number of students to return to in-person learning.

Portland Public Schools has said it would open to a very limited number of students as early as Jan. 25. Tiny Corbett School District is planning for about 50 of its 1,200 students to return to school buildings beginning the week of Jan. 25.

The guidelines are clear that if students don't wear masks, they won't be learning in the building. "Student or family refusal to wear appropriate face covering for a values-based reason then dictates that educational needs be met through Comprehensive Distance Learning," the guidelines said.

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education said in the announcement: "We are providing school leaders with the information they need to make local decisions about returning to in-person instruction."

Gill continued, "We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with access to an equitable education. Schools are a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services.

"This guidance provides new resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and better meet students' needs in this time."

This story will be updated as new information develops.

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