SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Despite rising, record daily COVID-19 case numbers, Gov. Kate Brown and other state officials unveiled new, more flexible and complex school reopening metrics Friday, with a goal of returning many more students to classrooms, noting that recent data shows they are not the "super-spreader" locations many fear.
However even under the new, relaxed metric requirements, about 80% of Oregon students will still not be eligible for in-person learning, state officials said.
“We want our kids at in-person instruction. We believe that most of our teachers want to be in person with their students,” said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education. “But everybody wants to do that with stability and with as little risk as possible.”
Previously in order for a school district to commence any form of in-person learning, the county must have 10 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days for three weeks. In addition, the countywide and state test positivity rate must be 5% or less for three consecutive weeks.
The original metrics have been described by some educators and parents as too restrictive.
“I do think that many community members thought that our targets were unreachable,” Gill said. “This new set of metrics is more in line where the CDC is. It is in line with where California is.”
Under the new metrics, counties that have 200 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — over 14 straight days — will remain in distance learning. If the county has between 100 to 200 cases that places them in the transition column. Fifty to 100 cases places a county in a hybrid of on-site and distance learning. Counties with less than 50 cases are eligible for on-site learning.
“We are taking a very measured and methodical approach, so (some people) might say that these are relaxed metrics, but the vast majority of Oregon students will still be getting their education from a distance,” Gill said.
The state Department of Education estimates that potentially 130,000 students could at some point soon return to some in-person instruction. There are about 600,000 public school students in Oregon.
“Guided by data, these metrics offer an intentional and measured approach to returning to in-person instruction while recognizing the importance of meeting our kids’ academic needs—and allow for in-person instruction in places of our state where the risk of COVID-19 is lower,” Gill said.
Officials stressed that while some schools metrics are eligible to return to on-site instruction, it should be done incrementally and beginning with younger grades.
Brown said the impacts of having to shift to distance learning for months are many and growing on everyone, especially students and families.
She said the state indicated when setting the earlier requirements in mid-summer it would update them in October, based on the latest data about both the virus and its impacts on schools.
Seven months after the schools closed “we have learned a lot,” she said, including that “COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future. It’s also clear we must begin prioritizing getting students back into the classroom for in-person instruction,” but also to “minimize the risk to the greatest extent forward.”
The revisions outlined in the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners,” effort are based on the latest data and will bring Oregon’s guidelines in sync with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines as well as other states, like California, she said.
While Oregon still has one of the lowest test positivity rates in the country, the rising case count makes clear the goal of students back in class is inextricably tied to getting more community members to practice the safety guidelines involving masks, social distancing, hand-washing and the rest, the governor said – even with the holidays coming up and people wanting to gather with extended families and friends.
“I know we’re all sick of hearing it,” Brown said. “This is a time for each of us to take a deep breath and reflect on the steps we need to take to keep everyone safe."
“The bottom line is, we have to turn the tide and reduce the transmission increases we are seeing in most parts of the state to be able to safely reopen schools for in-person learning,” Brown said Ramping up testing, contact tracing and “supportive isolation” will be other keys, she said.
A new public education effort is planned in coming weeks about the informal social gatherings that are driving much of the case rise, Brown said, adding later that with proper safety protocols, “What is really clear is that schools are not ‘super-spreader’ events.”
Gill noted that about 50,000 Oregon students have been in the classroom already, and while “we have had cases in our schools, we also have had very little transmission in our schools.”
While again thanking Oregonians for the sacrifices by so many to keep infection rates lower than much of the country, Brown added, “I will continue to keep all tools available to me. They are still on the table … I don’t want to use them. I don’t want to have to close down restaurants and bars to in-person dining. I don’t want to have to close venues. If Oregonians make the right choices, we won’t have to.”
News release from Gov. Kate Brown's office:
Governor Kate Brown Announces Updates to School Metrics
Close to 130,000 students in districts eligible to return to classrooms with health and safety measures in place
(Portland, OR) — Governor Kate Brown today announced updates to Oregon’s school metrics that will allow more students to return to classroom instruction with health and safety measures in place. The updated metrics reflect CDC guidance and lessons learned from school districts across the country for best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
“Our updated metrics are based on the latest COVID-19 studies and data, are aligned with CDC recommendations, and bring Oregon in sync with the standards of other states like California,” said Governor Brown. “They also help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction. These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students.”
With COVID-19 set to be present in Oregon communities for the foreseeable future, Governor Brown reiterated her priority of returning students as safely as possible to Oregon schools: “Schools do so much more than teach and inspire our kids. They make sure students who are hungry receive warm and nutritious meals. They are places that provide care for students and identify those who are at risk or in need. They help provide support for students’ mental health and well-being.
“Schools are at the center of it all: the personnel, teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, and education support professionals who, every day, build the personal, individual connections with students that are so crucial to their lifelong success.”
The Oregon Department of Education today also released an update to its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, which outlines strict health and safety protocols to lower the risk of COVID-19 infection among students, parents, educators, and support staff.
Governor Brown’s full remarks are available here.
Oregon Department of Education news release:
ODE Releases Updated School Metrics And Safety Reminders
Metrics based on latest COVID-19 studies and data, align to CDC recommendations and help Oregon meet its priority to return students to in-person instruction.
(Salem, Ore.) – As part of its planned guidance and metrics review process, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) is releasing an update to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, including updated metrics for returning to in-person instruction. The metrics are based on the latest COVID-19 studies and data, align to CDC recommendations, are in line with standards in other states like California and help Oregon meet its priority to return students to in-person instruction.
Since Oregon’s metrics were originally issued in August, more data has become available from school districts across the country. ODE worked with the Oregon Health Authority to establish when students can return to the classroom while still mitigating the risk of COVID-19 spread.
A key lesson from the review of national school data is that Oregon school districts can help protect student and staff health and well-being during in-person instruction when community spread is sufficiently low and when school districts strictly adhere to the health and safety protocols now in place in Oregon.
“Today we are sharing scheduled updates to our metrics for schools. Guided by data, these metrics offer an intentional and measured approach to returning to in-person instruction while recognizing the importance of meeting our kids’ academic needs—and allow for in-person instruction in places of our state where the risk of COVID-19 is lower. They also set a North Star for the rest of the state to work toward,” said ODE Director Colt Gill. “We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with more than 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.”
Key changes to the metrics include:
- A clear set of reachable targets for communities to strive for, with a North Star of returning Oregon students to in-person instruction.
- Acknowledgement that Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance’s strong public health protocols in structured settings like schools, can greatly reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
- Additional time for schools to transition between in-person and distance learning models.
- Increased access to in-person instruction at the elementary level.
- A two Week “Look Back” at the Metrics Data rather than one week at a time over a three week period.
- Removes State Positivity Rate in favor of county positivity rates.
ODE and the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) were among the very first states to create metrics for returning to in-person instruction in early August. At that time they were based in large part on successes seen in other countries, as school was not in session in the U.S. Later, exceptions were added to make a return to in-person instruction possible for more students, where there was lower risk of COVID-19 transmission.
When the metrics were first released, further review was announced, and now with additional studies and data on-hand the metrics are being revised to permit more in-person instruction while continuing to ensure that local conditions guide the process. As we learn more about the progression of COVID-19 in Oregon, the effectiveness of future vaccines and other mitigation efforts, and gain more information about the transmission of COVID-19 in structured settings like schools, ODE and OHA are committed to reviewing the metrics again in the coming weeks.
The metrics updates take effect immediately and, based on this week’s data points, potentially allow close to 130,000 students to return to some in-person instruction. The guidance recommends that schools consider both equity and a methodical and cautious approach at the beginning that return a portion of the school population first and then add more students on-site over time. This will allow schools to build new safety routines, stabilize cohorts, and avoid sudden, disruptive transitions back to Comprehensive Distance Learning due to quarantine or isolation.
Schools are structured settings where we can reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission through key practices. Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance requires schools to comply with specific guidelines on:
- Physical distancing
- Face coverings
- Hand hygiene
- Cleaning and disinfecting
- Airflow and ventilation
- And, effective screening, and responses to cases with quick access to testing and implementing isolation and quarantining
School safety and other COVID-19 school related questions can be answered by emailing ODECOVID19@ode.state.or.us.
If you believe a school is not in compliance with the safety requirements you can file a named or confidential complaint with Oregon OSHA at 1-833-604-0884 or online at: https://osha.oregon.gov/workers/Pages/index.aspx.
“These metrics depend on the public doing its part to reduce Oregon’s case rates so that all of our children can return to in-person instruction,” Gill said. “Oregonians can reduce spread and send our kids back to school by wearing a face covering, maintaining distance, washing hands frequently, and avoiding group gatherings.”
Other changes to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance include:
- Aligning with the most recent face covering requirements from Oregon Health Authority (Pages 32-35).
- Adding a link to the Tribal Consultation Toolkit (Page 77).
- An exclusion guide (30).
- Aligning to recent CDC changes to “close contact” definition (29).
Health and Education Leaders Weigh In
News release from the Oregon Education Association:
Statement from OEA President John Larson on Oregon’s Revised School Reopening Metrics
“Nobody wants to get students back to the classroom more than Oregon’s educators, but the process to bring those students back must be thoughtful and deliberative. The Governor’s decision to hastily implement new, relaxed, metrics will only serve to further disrupt education for students, families, and educators throughout Oregon – allowing districts to bring students back to the classroom before it is safe to do so and increasing the likelihood that our schools and communities will again be forced to lockdown in the future. Now is the time for Oregon leaders to focus on taking strong steps to reduce the ever-climbing community spread of COVID-19 in our state and put in place safeguards that will keep our most at-risk community members safe.”