Despite record numbers of coronavirus cases in Oregon, state education and health officials announced new guidelines Friday for public schools, potentially opening many more school doors to in-person instruction.

Education officials said new rules would allow in-person instruction to one-fifth of Oregon students — tripling what’s been allowed under Oregon guidelines, among the strictest in the country. The changes could allow about 150,000 of the state’s 600,000 public school children on campuses — but they don’t impact students in some of the state’s most populous areas, including Portland and its suburbs.

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Top officials from the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education said schools can be managed in a way that they don’t spread the virus, and that the state can manage a healthy return for students.

“We know that we can prioritize student and staff health and safety during in-person instruction, when community spread is significantly reduced and when we really adhere to the really strong safety protocols that we have in place in our guidance in Oregon,” said Colt Gill, the deputy superintendent of public instruction.

The rules that have been in place did not allow schools to offer in-person instruction unless the surrounding county keeps COVID-19 positive cases to a rate of no more than 10 per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks. There were exceptions: for example, for students in kindergarten to third grade, county infection rates were allowed to be as high as 30 per 100,000 residents. Under those rules, Oregon Department of Education officials estimate, only about 35,000 to 45,000 students had returned to some form of in-person instruction.

The new rules work off of a two-week snapshot of coronavirus cases and allow schools to run in-person classes in counties where the two-week totals are no more than 50 per 100,000, or 25 cases per week. Schools could operate in a hybrid model, with some on-site instruction and some ongoing distance learning, in counties where case rates are as high as 100 per 100,000 over a two-week period, or 50 per week.

The more attainable “hybrid” level in the new guidelines would prioritize students in up to sixth grade who attend elementary schools. That’s for two reasons, officials said: younger students tend to be less likely to spread the disease, and elementary schools are better prepared to teach students in distinct groups, or cohorts, which limit the interaction among students and staff but allow some on campus learning.

State officials said 15 mostly rural counties would be eligible to open schools for all grade levels under the plan, including Clatsop and Tillamook counties on the coast, Hood River and Sherman in the Columbia Gorge, Josephine, Klamath and Lake in Southern Oregon and eastern counties such as Baker and Union. A handful of counties are eligible for limited opening for elementary schools only, including Deschutes, Douglas and Polk counties.

Some counties must keep schools closed

But the relaxed rules are still too stringent for many counties, including Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Lane counties.

“There are 12 counties that are not yet eligible at all — they represent the vast majority of students in Oregon … who will not yet return to in-person instruction,” Gill said.

He estimated that of Oregon’s roughly 600,000 public school students, about 450,000 would not be able to return to in-person instruction — at least not right away.

Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland require masks to enter the school. Portland Public Schools started the school year online because of COVID-19.

Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland require masks to enter the school. Portland Public Schools started the school year online because of COVID-19.

Elizabeth Miller

Multnomah County, for example, averaged 140 cases per 100,000 over the last two weeks. That puts Portland above the 100-case threshold needed to open schools to some students.

“It’s not too far off, but not quite on the borderline [for reopening schools],” said state epidemiologist Tom Jeanne. In fact, it’s 40% higher than the threshold.

“Scientists, we kind of tend to think of things as an order of magnitude, like 10 times higher,” acknowledged Jeanne, “So I guess you could say they’re not close, and given the trend, it would probably be a while before they would be below that threshold.”

There’s a trend, said Jeanne, but the trend is only going in one direction: up.

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It’s important to note that per capita, Oregon has one of the lowest case counts in the country. But that’s just a baseline: the overall trend was seen in Oregon, the U.S., and around the world shows cases rising dramatically. It appears that concerns of a fall wave may have been founded. While it’s still unclear if that wave will continue through winter, given the behavior of other viruses, there’s no reason to assume it won’t.

Which begs the question: will some of Oregon’s more populous counties ever be able to open schools?

“Yeah, I mean, that is the question,” Jeanne said.

Brown again reiterated that getting schools open is a priority and that if cases do not decrease to levels that allow a safe return to schools, additional restrictions could be put in place to get case numbers lower.

And while COVID-19 infection rates have been rising in Oregon, officials said that their research concluded that schools would not make that spread worse. Health and education officials have been researching and consulting for months and concluded that schools have not proven to be “centers of spread” in other parts of the country, where schools have opened.

“We’re not necessarily seeing transmission within the schools,” said Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist. “So I think the weight of the evidence now, with protective measures in place — face coverings, physical distancing, screening for symptoms, cohorting — they’re actually pretty structured environments with a lower risk of transmission than other places in the community.”

Education officials said the new guidelines are effective immediately, clearing the way for thousands of students to return to classrooms in the coming weeks. In a discussion with the Bend-La Pine Public Schools board earlier this week, Superintendent Lora Nordquist saw an opportunity, based on what was then-draft guidance, to open a number of schools soon — starting with kindergarten to third grade, with upper elementary to follow.

“We are absolutely committed to getting our students back into school as soon as the metrics allow,” Nordquist said.

But the move to reopen schools is not universally popular. The statewide teachers union, Oregon Education Association, released a statement calling for a process that’s “thoughtful and deliberative,” and calling on state leaders to focus on reducing the community spread of COVID-19 before reopening schools.

“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,” said OEA President John Larson.

A safe path forward

A rapidly growing body of evidence shows that schools can reopen safely for young students if strict precautions are taken. Those include things like keeping students in small cohort groups to limit the number of people they’re exposed to, reducing class size, wearing masks and social distancing.

There have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 in schools in Oregon and across the world. But most of those cases led to little transmission.

Over 67,000 schools opened in Italy in September, despite rising cases there. Four weeks later, just 1,212 of those schools had experienced an outbreak, and most of those outbreaks consisted of a single case. Only one outbreak involved more than ten people: it was at a high school. Similar trends have been seen around the globe. In the United Kingdom, a majority of school outbreaks involved transmission between adults, not kids.

And in the U.S., the transmission has been highest in high school students, followed by middle school-aged kids. Worldwide, children younger than 10 seem to play very little role in transmitting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, possibly because their lungs are small, so they can’t spread it as far as older kids and adults. When they do get sick, the cases seem to be less severe.

“As long as schools are reopening with appropriate measures in place, they’re really a structured setting that has relatively low risk of spread,” said Jeanne, the state’s deputy epidemiologist. “And so even in places around the world where there has been relatively high case rates in the community, many schools have been able to open without seeing significant transmission, without seeing significant outbreaks.”

And unlike colleges and universities, which in some towns have driven outbreaks, cases in schools seem to follow increases in community transmission, not to drive it. But nothing is ever zero-risk. Although young kids may be less likely to develop symptoms, the teachers and staff at their schools are older — and sometimes high-risk. And even if opening schools only leads to a small increase in transmission, with COVID-19, little changes can have big impacts.

“I would highlight that we know the virus is sensitive to changes in transmission," Jeanne said. “So we know Oregonians can drive down trends by redoubling prevention efforts.”

But that goes both ways. Little changes can make cases drop, but they can also make them explode.

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