Tens of thousands of Oregon elementary school students could be headed back to the classroom this fall after the state adopted new, substantially more flexible COVID-19 safety standards Friday.
It’s a major change that could reopen classrooms to younger students in many districts, including in Clackamas County, by lowering the benchmarks by which Oregon measures whether schools may conduct in-person classes.
But for students in Portland and other more densely populated areas of the state, and for middle school and high school students in most of Oregon, remote learning will remain the norm. Infection rates are generally too high in 12 of Oregon’s 36 counties to qualify for reopening – even under the liberalized standard.
And even students in Clackmas, Deschutes, Benton and other counties that are now green-lit to allow elementary students back may not return to classrooms any time soon. The decision is left to school district leaders.
The Oregon Department of Education said it is relaxing standards because the benefits of in-class instruction outweigh the risk. And with the right safety protocols, officials believe that risk can be managed.
The virtual classroom doesn’t compare to the real thing, where teachers can look students in the eye and catch non-verbal cues, said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Education Department.
“We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with more than access to an equitable education,” he said. “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.”
Nevertheless, the state is relaxing standards just as coronavirus cases in Oregon are surging to record levels. If the infection rate continues to climb, that could disqualify districts that are currently eligible under the new standards.
State officials decided to allow elementary schools to reopen first because classes are generally smaller, and students have fewer contacts outside of school and home.
“The changing and often larger cohorts in middle and high schools pose some increased risk of spread to more individuals,” said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.
Gill predicted the state’s new “measured” approach will be welcomed by students and parents alike. When Gov. Kate Brown closed schools last March it created a new dilemma for families already struggling to deal with the health and economic fallout from the pandemic.
“Judging from my email, many parents are ready for in- person instruction,” Gill said. “We’re hoping for buy-in from the bulk of the community.”
The decision to loosen the guidelines and reopen some schools comes just as the virus is surging to new highs in the state. New cases set record highs nine consecutive days in Oregon, pushing the state’s daily average to more than 400 cases a day.
Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist, said countries around the world have kept schools open and managed to keep the virus spread at relatively low levels. But to match other countries' successes, Oregon students will have to adhere to strict personal safety practices.
That means students will be masked at all times, socially distanced, and must practice good “hand hygiene.” Classrooms must be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and they must offer good ventilation and air flow.
Perhaps most important, strict screening protocols will have to be developed to spot new infections and quick isolation and quarantining. Jeanne said the state has recently gotten access to more tests to make that more robust screening feasible.
Parents will have the option of keeping their children home if they choose.
Portland and Washington County school districts have already decided they won’t allow any in-person learning for most students until January or February of 2021 at the earliest.
Washington County said it might allow students in kindergarten through third grade to return sooner.
As for the newly eligible schools, Gill said he expects they could open their doors as quickly as two weeks after Friday’s announcement. For others it will take longer. Some schools may choose to wait until the beginning of their next quarter or trimester.
State officials estimate that 451,000 students, 80% of the total, will have to continue in the virtual classroom. County infection rates, a key metric under the new regime, are actually increasing in most urban areas. Correspondingly, the gap between their current reality and the reopening qualifying standard is growing, not shrinking.
Gill insists that the new qualifying standards are not out of reach for any school district, including the larger districts in metro areas that don’t currently qualify.
“I disagree with the notion that there is no light on the horizon” he said. “Multnomah was at the point three weeks ago that would have allowed them to open elementary. Clackamas met the metrics this week that would allow their young students to return.”
Gill said Oregon’s eight-month virtual classroom experiment has shown it doesn’t compare to in-class learning. There’s just no substitute for the personal relationship between teacher and student that develops in the traditional classroom, he said.
“When a teacher can’t see the faces of their students, when they can’t see the non-verbal cues, it’s much more difficult for to know whether a student is comprehending the subject matter,” he said.
Oregon first adopted a set of detailed metrics for reopening classrooms in August. State officials are now loosening those requirements.
The old standard allowed schools to resume traditional on-site instruction for younger students if the county registered fewer than 30 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks. The county’s overall positive test rate must have been at 5% or lower for just as long.
To open classrooms for all ages, the old standard was no more than 10 positive cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks.
Under the new standard, schools can resume on-site classes for all grade levels if the county case rate is below 50 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. The county positivity standard of 5% or lower remains the same.
In counties with rates between 50 and 200 per 100,000 people over two weeks, districts can adopt a mix of on-site and distance learning, starting with grades K-3. Districts located in counties with virus case rates of 200 or more per 100,000 people will be required to stick with distance learning only.
The new standards are more strict for counties with fewer than 30,000 residents.
The statewide “positivity metric” is being dumped. Officials decided that holding all districts to a statewide metric was keeping some schools closed even when their community infection rates were at safer levels.
-- Jeff Manning
This story was first published on The Oregonian/OregonLive and is posted here through a content-sharing arrangement related to coronavirus coverage with a dozen media outlets in Oregon.