How and when Oregon kids will go back to classrooms is still an open question, with the opening of school fast approaching. This week, the state’s Department of Education bowed to pressure from rural community leaders and released new standards for in-person instruction in the state’s most sparsely-populated areas.
ODE Director Colt Gill said that the goal of these updated protocols is to allow rural schools the flexibility to reopen their doors while ensuring that any school-related outbreaks remain small.
“We want to make sure no local health authority would be overwhelmed by contact tracing. We want to reduce the number of students and staff interacting,” said Gill.
Counties with populations of less than 30,000 will be able to open, even if they don’t meet the statewide standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 residents. Those counties can open schools that serve fewer than 250 students if certain criteria are met. Conditions include limiting the total number of cases in a county over the previous three weeks to no more than 30. If more than half of those cases occurred in the final week of that three-week period schools would have to remain closed, because it could indicate increasing community transmission.
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There can’t be any transmission happening in the school community and only schools where less than 10% of students travel from another area will qualify.
In counties with a population of fewer than six people per square mile, schools can reopen regardless of size if there have been fewer than 30 cases total in the last three weeks. The schools can’t serve a “significant number” of students commuting from other districts, and there can’t be active outbreaks in commuters’ hometowns.
“We’ll take what we can get given the circumstances, and we’re thankful the state was willing to hear the feedback of our rural communities and find a common-sense solution,” said Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson in a Tuesday press release.
ODE’s revisions mean that in her district, two of Central Oregon’s smallest schools — Paulina and Brothers — will open their doors next month. Crook County officials are among school administrators across the state scrambling to decipher the guidelines and decide which facilities can have kids attend classes in-person.
Adding to the uncertainty, ODE officials have said they expect to update the guidance a few more times before school starts.
“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mark Owens of the revised guidance for small population counties. The Republican from Crane represents Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — a vast swath of Oregon with a small fraction of the state population, where statewide rulemaking has long been a political target.
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For months, Owens and other rural lawmakers have been advocating for rural school districts to be allowed to customize reopening plans with local public health officials: “I have no fear of COVID-19 spreading rapidly in our schools. If it does, actions will be taken, proper precautions will be maintained, and we’ll have lessons learned,” he said.
ODE said that rural health departments face unique challenges tracking and containing COVID-19. “For those very low population, but very large geographic counties, that does become a challenge,” said Gill, adding that health departments were consulted when making guidelines and that larger counties do have bigger health departments.
Owens also acknowledged that after years of budget cuts, and in some cases total defunding, many of the rural health departments these school plans now depend on “are not set up to deal with a global pandemic, or be successful without help.”
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“The state is going to have to step up with some CARES Act funding in order to make sure that we can give them extra personnel,” Owens added.
Owens is married to a teacher, with a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
“I honestly feel that my family will be safer with the practices in place in school than they are when traveling to Home Depot, or traveling to some of the other things that are allowed currently,” he said.
If residents of one town frequently travel to another for work or to shop, outbreaks in those communities would also cause schools to close.
“We wanted provisions to address rural towns that are more of a bedroom community to a city that might be impacted by COVID-19,” Gill said, “[Local public health authorities] do need to understand if the majority of that community works in or shops in another community that is impacted, they’re not isolated.”
Because some rural towns are far apart or aren’t connected by major roads, some schools can stay open even if there is active community transmission in the county.
“The idea behind this guidance is that some of our very large geographic counties, where towns are spread out, could have an outbreak in one community, and then for thousands of square miles, no outbreaks,” Gill said.
That doesn’t just apply to in-state communities. Officials will also need to take into account outbreaks in nearby communities across state lines.
On the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Malheur County has become a hotspot for the virus in some areas, while other communities remain untouched. At over 10,000-square-miles, it’s the second-largest county in the state and a case study in the complexity of regulating Oregon’s diverse geography.
Zach Olson’s two kids were attending school in Nyssa, where the infection rate is nearly five times the state average, as of last week’s OHA report. It takes over an hour to drive from there, to the school in Jordan Valley, both within Malheur County.
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Olson said he’s fortunate to be able to afford a nanny while his family juggles child care, and resentful that other kinds of business reopened before schools.
“Every day I walk by a closed elementary school and then numerous open bars, restaurants, and pot shops. The governor created that situation and it can not stand,” Olson said in an email.
The dad of two boys was critical of how often the guidelines have changed leading up to the start of the fall semester.
“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” he said.
The updated metrics also include exemptions for rural school districts in more populated counties. For urban schools to reopen, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 for three consecutive weeks. But rural schools can reopen if the school serves fewer than 250 people if there is no transmission in the community, and if they meet the same case metrics for counties with smaller populations
Many people in Oregon have reported delayed test results in the last month, sometimes waiting for as long as three weeks to find out if they have COVID-19. To make sure counties can identify outbreaks in time to close schools, presumptive cases do not need to be confirmed with a laboratory test to count.
As director of the Oregon Department of Education, Gill has the authority to close a school facility and address any complaints raised about flouting its guidance.
“These actions include the potential to withhold State School Fund (SSF) payments if needed and as a means of last resort,” according to the state guidelines.