Oregon schools’ efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 drew positive reviews Thursday from a top state health official, who also said it may be necessary to find ways to limit the number of healthy students being quarantined.

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Thursday that thanks to robust testing and quarantine procedures, there have been very few cases of COVID-19 in Oregon’s schools thus far this year, and little transmission.

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While quarantine procedures have slowed COVID-19 transmission in schools, by definition students who are in quarantine are not in school. With COVID-19 circulation still near record levels, thousands of students are now in quarantine across the state. That’s led some schools and districts to switch entirely to distance learning, at least for now. Although some schools only have a handful of confirmed cases, they may have several hundred students in quarantine.

Oregon school administrators and public health officials are facing a hard task: how to weigh the benefits of in-person education versus the safety benefits of quarantining the exposed children.

”While we don’t like to quarantine students and send them home to distance learning, we know that’s an important tool in keeping COVID from spreading in the school,” Sidelinger said. “It is disruptive, but it’s less disruptive than seeing COVID go on and spread through schools and lead to potential tragedies.”

In at least one state, a “test-to-stay” strategy has been used to decrease the number of students in quarantine instead of classrooms.

Utah adopted such a policy in the fall of 2020. In test-to-stay, students who were exposed could return to school after just a few days if they have a negative COVID-19 test, instead of staying home for a full 10-day quarantine. According to a study in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, which is published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah’s test-to-stay policy saved over 100,000 student-days of in-person instruction.

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The study was conducted before the delta variant came to Utah. This year, Utah schools are seeing far more COVID-19 cases. It’s possible that’s due to the spread of the delta variant, but the Utah Legislature also passed a law prohibiting mask requirements in schools, which dramatically increased the chances of a child getting infected.

Sidelinger said that his state agency, Oregon Health Authority, considered implementing a test-to-stay strategy when putting together this fall’s COVID-19 guidelines, but ultimately decided against it.

The state had just implemented a new opt-in COVID-19 screening program, which allows individual cohorts of students — entire districts, schools, classes, or clubs — to sign up to be tested once a week.

“We wanted to get that in place first,” he said.

But test-to-stay, and strategies like it, are still on the table. First, though, OHA wants to see how the screening program unfolds. They want to see how well it works, and how many schools ultimately choose to opt in.

”We want to see what our capacity is for doing additional testing before we add on other programs. But certainly, test-to-stay and other methods that are working in other communities or states are things we would like to look at,” Sidelinger explained.

There are other ways to lower the number of students who need to quarantine, and Sidelinger encouraged schools to implement them. Using strict seating charts in classes, lunchrooms and buses, for example, can help a school get a more accurate idea of how many people have been exposed to someone who tested positive. Without strict adherence to seating charts, an entire class — or even grade — may need to quarantine.

Staggering lunches so that fewer students are eating together at any given time can help, too. Sidelinger also suggested schools take steps to limit student-mixing gym class and keeping group sizes small.

COVID-19 cases in Oregon have declined somewhat over the last week, but Sidelinger emphasized that hospitals are still operating at capacity and are rationing care. He asked Oregonians to stay home and avoid taking risks that could spread transmission, and consider the risks towards others and not just themselves, to keep schools and hospitals functioning.

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