Beginning March 12, Oregon will end contact tracing and quarantine for the “general population,” including in schools. New procedures for schools are outlined in an updated resiliency framework, released Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Education.
With the recent announcement handing decision-making authority over masks to local school leaders, ODE’s guidance provides information on new quarantine, contact tracing, and testing protocols for schools. The new guidance is set to be in effect through the end of the school year.
Education and health officials say that contact tracing efforts lag transmission of the coronavirus, and Oregon has “very high levels” of immunity due to vaccines and COVID-19 cases. Officials say the duration of immunity is unknown.
During a media briefing Wednesday, ODE Director Colt Gill said Oregon is entering a new stage of the pandemic.
“Over the last two years we have made many shifts,” Gill said. “From ‘stay at home, save lives,’ to physical distancing and masking, to a re-introduction of in person learning... each shift over the last two years has been in response to a new stage of the pandemic and its impacts, as well as our experience in learning about the effectiveness of various mitigation efforts.”
Gov. Kate Brown announced the new March 12 date in cooperation with leaders in Washington and California.
Instead of contact tracing, schools are “strongly encouraged” to notify student groups when an exposure occurs. ODE defines a COVID-19 exposure as “unmasked indoor close contact with someone with COVID-19 within six feet for 15 or more minutes.”
“Test-to-stay” testing available to schools will now move to only testing certain students and staff, including those at higher risk of severe COVID-19.
“We would encourage schools to work to make those tests available to individuals who are at high risk,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger Wednesday. “That could include special education classrooms, or classrooms that serve a large number of students with disabilities so that they have access to testing.”
Schools will still have access to diagnostic testing for anyone with symptoms and screening testing for unvaccinated individuals. According to OHA, 45 school districts and 59 individual schools participate in screening testing, with varying levels of participation. More than 10,000 staff members have registered for screening, but not all are actively participating.
Districts remain required to have a communicable disease plan to deal with any outbreaks. For any individual who contracts COVID-19 and has symptoms, an isolation period of at least five days is recommended, followed by five more days wearing a well-fitting mask. Isolation is not required but is strongly advised.
“Schools do have a responsibility if they know about an individual with COVID-19, to exclude them for those five days while they are recovering,” Sidelinger said.
Also effective March 12, masks will no longer be required on school buses. That aligns with a recent change from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During Wednesday’s briefing, Gill stressed that these changes don’t mean the pandemic is over. He said ODE is also working with schools to make sure students and staff who continue to wear masks after March 12 feel respected and safe at school.
“All of this represents significant change in operations of our schools and the day-to-day experience for students and staff,” Gill said. “This can feel like it’s signaling the end of the pandemic, and I want to be clear that that’s not the intention here.”
The guidance also lists “primary” and “non-primary” COVID-19 symptoms, with ODE encouraging anyone with “primary” symptoms to get tested and stay home from school. Primary symptoms include cough, fever and shortness of breath. Non-primary symptoms include headache, sore throat and fatigue.
Despite the end of the mandate, ODE and the Oregon Health Authority continue to “strongly advise” universal masking as a way to reduce COVID-19 spread in order to “minimize the lost time learning in school due to illness” when county transmission levels are high.
While many school district leaders have indicated they will follow the state when the mask mandate ends, others have been waiting for ODE’s guidance before making a decision.
In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said masks will be optional when students go to school Monday, March 14. With 74% of students in the large Washington County district vaccinated, she told OPB’s Think Out Loud that vaccinations are just one part of the COVID-19 mitigation strategies that will remain even when the mask requirement goes away.
The district also collected feedback from families about what they need to know when it comes to COVID mitigation efforts.
“This is prime time for us, is to make sure that we’re getting this right and we’re doing it in partnership with our public health department, and that we’re working with our families to make sure that they are fully informed as to what their choice means,” Rieke-Smith said.
Umatilla School District in eastern Oregon is also moving to a mask optional policy when the state mandate ends. Superintendent Heidi Sipe told Think Out Loud that her community is ready and informed of the changes.
“I’m excited for us to be moving forward into this area,” Sipe said.
“I think the thing that I have to do as a leader now is really re-establish the communication and the strategy and the education for families in our community, and the way in which we work together to keep our kids safe and keep them learning in school.”