The pandemic metrics that govern when Oregon schools can allow students back into classrooms would be “much less restrictive” and return Bend-La Pine students in grades K-3 quickly under a draft of a state plan seen by Superintendent Lora Nordquist.
Nordquist shared what she knew of the plan with the Bend-La Pine School Board at its Tuesday meeting, but did not have many specific details and said the draft could change. Nordquist learned details about the plan in a virtual meeting Monday with Colt Gill, chief of the Oregon Department of Education.
Among the highlights of the draft Nordquist shared:
• Statewide COVID-19 positivity rates will no longer be a factor.
• County COVID-19 cases will be counted in two-week averages, instead of a county having to stay below a threshold for three weeks in a row.
• Instead of an exception allowing higher county case numbers for grades K-3 only, grades 4 and 5 (along with 6, if it’s a K-6 elementary school) can reopen more easily.
Nordquist doesn’t yet know when Gov. Kate Brown will unveil the official version of these more lenient metrics. She told the school board that it will likely be later this week or early next week.
Nordquist was also unsure of how quickly the metrics would go into effect after Brown’s announcement. She added that if case counts are still too high to bring back students, even with the less restrictive metrics, Brown could impose more restrictions on other, nonschool high-risk activities in the community.
State education officials noticed in the past few months that in other places in the U.S. and around the world where schools reopened, schools were rarely a primary cause of COVID-19 spread, Nordquist told the board.
“They’ll reflect community spread — if it’s high in an area, it’ll be high in school — but it’s not that schools are the spreader events, based on the research,” she said.
Carrie Douglass, chair of the school board, said she likes what she’s heard so far about the metrics update. In particular, she likes the balance between returning students to classrooms while keeping the community safe.
“I’m glad to see the restrictions lifted slightly, but not significantly,” she told The Bulletin Wednesday. “Our goal is to get our kids back in school, but only if case rates are still at a manageable level.”
Some local parents had more mixed feelings about this proposed plan.
Jose Pacheco, a nurse at St. Charles Bend with two kids at the K-8 Highland Magnet School at Kenwood School and one child at High Desert Middle School, said he’s nervous about reopening schools.
On one hand, he and his family all tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-October, so he feels comfortable sending his children back to school now that they likely have antibodies for the virus. But Pacheco was worried for family members or teachers with preexisting conditions, who are more vulnerable, he said.
“I would feel really, really, really bad for those who are susceptible to get really sick,” he said Wednesday morning. “Had we not caught it, then I would be very hesitant to pull the trigger on sending (our kids) back.”
Christie Otley, a parent of students at Buckingham Elementary School and Pilot Butte Middle School, is worried that the metrics won’t be lenient enough. She believes there should be an option for families to return to in-person instruction if they wish, no matter what the local COVID-19 case rates are, she told The Bulletin.
“This feels like continuing to move the goalposts, (and) there’s a large majority of people who feel like that goalpost should be removed completely,” Otley said. “Not saying no metrics, but there should be choices.”
Nicole Perullo, who has children at William E. Miller Elementary School and Pacific Crest Middle School, said reopening schools could benefit students from unstable homes.
But she was still strongly against making reopening metrics more lenient unless schools conducted frequent testing of students and school staff.
“I feel like all the kids should be back in the classroom. This is not a good thing for them emotionally or socially,” Perullo said. “(But) I think we’re going to have more numbers; it’s going to be flu season … and we shouldn’t lower the standards.”
The Bulletin is part of a reporting collaboration with OPB, The Oregonian/Oregonlive, Salem Reporter and the Ontario Argus-Observer, with a focus on education during the coronavirus pandemic.