COVID-19 isn't going away anytime soon, and experts suggest that public health safety measures will likely need to be in place well into 2021. Fortunately, Oregonians take such measures seriously, and we've had low COVID-19 case and death rates as a result. Portland has the second-lowest rate of COVID-19 among major U.S. cities, and with Oregon's success with COVID-19, officials have permitted restaurants, shops, bars, salons, gyms, daycares, preschools and indoor playgrounds to reopen.
But one place remains largely absent from reopening here in Oregon: public schools. Most of our state's children have not attended school in-person for months, and even with the recent easing of Oregon's strict school reopening metrics, many may still have to wait much longer.
For most kids this is a game-changer. The central role that public schools play in our society has been well-documented, and, worryingly, there is increasing evidence that the stress caused by remote learning has already had a negative impact on their physical and mental health, contributed to a loss of important skills, and limited their social development. These impacts are not necessarily just short-term: the lack of in-person school may increase their risk for chronic health conditions and lower their future economic prospects. Their families and caregivers are suffering as well, and these consequences are felt disproportionately by our students and families of color and by those experiencing poverty.
Thankfully, the overall risk posed by COVID-19 is low in children, and schools have been open across the country for months now with encouraging safety data that suggests that they have not been a major source of COVID-19 spread, especially at the elementary school level. Even in states like Florida, where COVID-19 rates have been at much higher levels than here in Oregon, schools have not been implicated in major outbreaks as feared.
Europe's experience provides similar data, and despite rising cases, many countries have prioritized in-person learning. Dr. Margrethe Greve-Isdahl of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health notes, "the view in Norway is that children and youth should have high priority to have as normal a life as possible, because this disease is going to last. They have the lowest burden of the disease, so they shouldn't have the highest burden of measures."
Our children both attend a public school in Beaverton that has been operating remotely for months. But it's not sitting empty. Much like several other area schools, Cooper Mountain Elementary permits a private daycare to use the site to host learners from kindergarten to sixth grade. While physically at school, students learn remotely rather than receive instruction from their teachers. Fortunately, excellent safety protocols are in place, and we've had no large outbreaks amongst those children and staff. But how can anyone not be stunned to see our schools being used in this way?
We applaud Gov. Brown's move to relax some of our current school reopening metrics because we are failing Oregon's most vulnerable with remote learning alone. Common sense safety measures like wearing face coverings, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing work, and despite initial fears that school openings would result in a major spread of COVID-19 cases, the data suggests otherwise. This pandemic may be with us through 2021, possibly even longer if we experience delays in our search for disease-fighting therapies and an effective vaccine. We must follow the science and continue to adjust our metrics to allow for more in-person learning in Oregon public schools.
Trevor Moerkerke is a family physician at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center and a clinical assistant professor at OHSU. Douglas Byrd is a professor of political science at Portland Community College.
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