Amid dire warnings about surging case numbers in some parts of the Northwest, Oregon got a measure of good news Wednesday about the coronavirus trend.
At least it’s not bad news. And it comes as Gov. Kate Brown is reemphasizing her goal to reopen schools for students to in-person learning.
After a record-setting week in early October for COVID-19 indicators, numbers came down slightly last week.
Deaths in the state from the virus barely changed, from 37 the week ending Oct. 11 to 35 for the most recent week.
Coronavirus cases had hit a weekly record of 2,418 cases for the week ending Oct. 11, an average of nearly 350 new cases per day. That came down 4% for the week ending Oct. 18 to 2,327. That’s still more than 330 cases per day, a very high number in the eyes of public health officials.
Just as the latest weekly numbers came out, Brown issued a statement highlighting the work of a group she’s convened, the “Governor’s Healthy Schools Reopening Council.” She emphasized her goal of reopening Oregon public schools while acknowledging “increasing community spread of COVID-19 in counties across Oregon presents a major obstacle to returning more students to the classroom.”
Oregon counties with more than 10 cases per 100,000 residents can’t open for in-person instruction, except under certain exceptions, such as in particularly remote schools in sparsely populated counties. The state also allows higher case numbers for schools serving only up to third grade, and the rules provide for limited in-person instruction for students with particular needs, such as children receiving special education or English language support.
The statewide average for cases per 100,000 has leveled off, most recently measured at 54.4 cases. However, it remains far above the 31 cases per 100,000 residents in the state back when school was just starting in early September.
Brown noted three focus areas for the council, including a review of metrics and experiences of other states. Parents eager to have schools reopen, or at least for more local control in those decisions, have noted that Oregon has some of the most stringent criteria for reopening schools in the country. Recent rallies in Clackamas, Bend and Salem, as well as local steps to reopen from southern to eastern Oregon, have also put pressure on state leaders to reevaluate their COVID-19 requirements for schools.
State education officials have said they plan to provide new guidance to schools later this month, which could make it easier for schools to reopen.
“Our highest priority is to open our schools to in-person instruction. And, we want each community to have the ability to do that as soon as we believe we can provide safety and stability for students, families and staff at the school,” ODE communications director Marc Siegal said in an email to OPB.
“Following the guidelines will help open our schools to in-person instruction and keep them open. This is what our students and families need and by working together we can all help achieve this goal.”
According to the governor’s announcement, the Healthy Schools Reopening Council will also work to ensure schools are prepared to enact health safeguards after they open to in-person instruction. Brown said the council will also join statewide efforts to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“In order to get our kids back into the classroom, we need concerted, community-wide efforts to drive down COVID-19 case rates –– by wearing face coverings, watching our physical distance, washing our hands and forgoing large social gatherings,” Brown said. “It’s on all of us to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, so we can open schools and keep them open safely.”