School districts across Oregon are beginning to re-open their brick-and-mortar buildings for in-person learning, even though COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations are far greater than they were when schools originally closed their doors last spring.
Now that teachers qualify for vaccines and protocols are in place to mitigate as many risks as possible, state officials have allowed more schools to begin re-entry.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools hopes to have its youngest students back in classrooms at least part-time later this month, and all students back by mid-April.
But parents and educators still have a lot of questions.
Re-entry: Salem-Keizer’s youngest students could be back on campus in February
Thomas Jeanne, a state health officer and epidemiologist, joined Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, Wednesday for a virtual Q&A regarding COVID-19 and the state’s plans for school re-entry.
To date, 143,978 cases have been reported statewide. Over the past two weeks, Jeanne said, Oregon has seen a “dramatic decline” in daily cases, positive cases and hospitalizations.
As of Tuesday, Oregon’s seven-day case rate was the third-lowest in the nation, he said.
Gill said about 100,000 students statewide are currently attending school in-person to some degree.
The Oregon Department of Education continues to update its protocols, outlined in the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance.
The department released a number of changes Jan. 19, including more lenient county metrics recommended before individual districts can begin any form of school re-entry. Those that open without meeting the metrics are required to have COVID testing on site.
Officials said the metrics have been updated to match Harvard Global Health Institute recommendations, with other states including Colorado and Washington making similar changes.
Districts are still required to follow more than 160 other mandatory protocols. These include social distancing, face coverings and regular handwashing.
Here’s what Jeanne and Gill had to say in response to questions asked by Oregon parents:
Q: If teachers are vaccinated, why do older kids have to wait to be back in person?
A: Re-entry plans currently focus on younger students, primarily students in grades K-3. Jeanne said this is because these students don’t switch classrooms as much throughout the day, the way a high schooler does for elective courses, so are less likely to spread COVID-19. These younger grades are also crucial times in a child’s social and emotional development.
Additionally, it will take several weeks to get all Oregon educators vaccinated, Jeanne explained. He compared it to swiss cheese — each precaution has holes in it, but stacking the measures (i.e. vaccines, cohorts, mask-wearing and social distancing) gives the greatest chance to cover all the holes.
Q: What about kids with disabilities? How are they getting access to IEPs?
A: An Individualized Education Program, often called IEP, is a legal document protected under federal law that is developed for children accessing special education services in public schools.
Gill said families can work with their schools to amend their plans as needed at this time, and that compensatory services will be available to them when students are learning in person again.
He said districts should be fulfilling the needs of every IEP whether they are on-site or using distanced learning.
Q: When will sports, particularly outdoor sports, be allowed?
A: K-12 sports are subject to the same indoor and outdoor recreation guidance that Oregon has statewide, Jeanne said. They’re not directly tied to the model of learning being used by their individual schools. As a result, he said, it depends on the county’s risk level for which sports are allowed.
Indoor and outdoor sports have different requirements, he said, and currently all full-contact sports are prohibited. However, these sports can practice and train, as long as they are not making full contact.
Otherwise, outdoor sports are allowed with state-approved measures in place.
Q: Will students have to quarantin
e for 14 days if there’s a case in the cohort?
A: This will differ case by case, Jeanne said. When a positive case is found, local agencies will conduct contact tracing to determine if everyone in the cohort was exposed and needs to quarantine, or if a reduced number is at risk.
Q: Will teachers need to get vaccinated again?
A: There are two doses for the vaccines being administered currently, Jeanne said. The highest protection is 14 days after someone receives the second dose.
It’s not yet known how long the immunity will last after the second dose. Jeanne said the state is focused on getting people the first dose, then the second dose as soon as they can.
Q: How do I know if there’s been a case or outbreak at my school?
A: Every school with an outbreak, even one with a single reported case, should be on the state’s outbreak report released each week, Jeanne said, adding there can sometimes be a reporting delay.
Q: How will schools handle ventilation?
A: The COVID-19 virus spreads by way of particles, Jeanne explained, which masks help to catch. That said, some smaller particles can still get through and stay in the air for some time, making proper ventilation crucial.
Schools should be opening windows and using their ventilation systems as instructed in state guidelines. If they don’t have windows, schools’ internal circulation systems have filters and should still help. Even having doors open, he said, can help circulate the air more.
Gill added that state guidelines allow schools to hold classes outside as weather and physical coverings permit.
Q: Why are schools encouraged to continue in-person even if cases rise?
A: Having fewer cases in the community before returning to in-person learning in the first place is the best bet in keeping the virus from ever coming into the schools, Gill explained.
But across the country, he said, best practices are showing that schools don’t need to stop in-person learning if cases rise in the community unless there is an outbreak in the school or they are no longer able to adhere to safety protocols.
Once schools’ counties are in the “green zone” of the cases metrics — meaning the county has fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days — they can look at not having to socially distance as much.
Q: Can parents get vaccinated if their children are doing in-person learning?
A: Age, health and profession are all factors that can qualify someone to be moved up earlier for a vaccine, Jeanne said. These may allow a parent to qualify for a vaccine on their own, but people do not qualify, at this time, solely for being parents.
Q: What’s the timeline for afterschool, wraparound services to reopen?
A: The state has guidelines separate from schools that pertain to these programs and services. These decisions are made locally, Gill said. These programs, including branches of the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, are currently allowed to operate.
For more information, go to govstatus.egov.com/OR-OHA-COVID-19 or www.oregon.gov/ode/students-and-family/healthsafety/Pages/COVID19.aspx.
Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at [email protected], 503-399-6745, Twitter @NataliePateGwin or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.
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