The recent spate of catastrophic wildfires may end up helping some Oregon schools open to in-person instruction, whether they were close to the fires or not.
State health officials pointed out recently that wildfires interfered with processing COVID-19 tests over the last few weeks, and as a result, a key metric for disease transmission has been compromised: test positivity.
Test positivity is the percentage of tests that yield a positive result — a metric that health and school officials are tracking closely to help guide decisions on whether to allow more in-person contact, including in schools. The Oregon Department of Education announced Thursday that it’s allowing school districts to disregard test positivity rates from September, opening the door to in-person instruction, in places where the number of weekly positive case numbers are within allowable limits.
“This means that schools will rely only on the case rates and case counts,” said ODE director Colt Gill in a message to school districts. “As case rates appear to be on the rise again in Oregon, it is vitally important that you review the case rate and case count trend in your county prior to making any decisions to return to in-person instruction.”
According to Gill, school districts in seven counties are “immediately impacted." Clackamas, Grant, Harney, Hood River, Lake, Linn and Wheeler.
“Not all of these meet the metrics for opening to all in-person instruction, some meet only K-3,” ODE said in an email to OPB.
In-person teaching for kindergarten up to 3rd grade is allowed in counties where there are as many as 30 positive cases per 100,000 residents. For grades 4-12 the standard is tougher - the county must have no more than 10 positive cases per 100,000 residents. The rules are different for Oregon’s smallest counties, and ODE is more permissive of in-person instruction for groups with specific needs, such as students with disabilities or students learning English.
And even if a school district has moved within the allowable limits under the new guidance from ODE, it doesn’t mean district leaders will choose to make a move.
North Clackamas is the largest school district in any of the affected counties, and officials there didn’t indicate any immediate changes to their approach.
“[A]s of today, there are no changes to NCSD’s strategy,” said spokesperson Jonathan Hutchison in an email to OPB.
Officials at the Crook County School District immediately applauded the allowance from the state, seeing an opportunity to carry out its plan to open to in-person instruction next month.
"I’m surprised by ODE’s announcement today, and I’m more optimistic than ever that we are going to have students back in person soon,” Crook County schools superintendent Sara Johnson said in a press release Thursday.
ODE confirmed that Crook County could open to in-person instruction for all grades under the new guidance in early October, if its weekly case counts remain low for another week. Crook County is already teaching K-3 in-person.
Superintendent Johnson pointed out in her announcement that the district had previously asked to be allowed to “pilot” opening for the upper grades, giving the central Oregon district two possible avenues to expand in-person learning.
For districts that choose to use exceptions to initiate in-person instruction, ODE urges caution and communication with local public health officials. The ODE announcement included plans for stepped-up testing at school sites and a requirement for weekly reporting from schools on their COVID-19 situations.
ODE also flagged the possibility that schools that open to in-person instruction could have to switch back to distance learning, if the local COVID-19 cases rise or if cases show up at school.
“If there are cases in two or more cohorts without an identified common exposure, school officials should discuss with local public health officials to determine if this represents unexplained spread within the school or broader community,” Gill said in his announcement to districts.
Gill suggested districts consult with public health if case numbers increase, and consider a move back to all online instruction which ODE calls “comprehensive distance learning.”