PORTLAND, Ore. — Following a statement last week that state officials were revisiting Oregon's school coronavirus metrics, Governor Kate Brown convened a press conference on Friday morning to discuss the new benchmarks.
The metrics, announced amid record high case rates in Oregon, will make it easier for schools to bring students back into classrooms — ostensibly bringing roughly 130,000 students back into schools around the state, Brown said.
"COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and most Oregon students have not been able to learn in a classroom since last March," Governor Brown's office said in a preliminary statement to NewsWatch 12 on Thursday night. "In-person instruction is critical not only for students’ educational success, but also for their health and wellbeing.
"In communities that meet the new metrics for COVID-19 spread, additional students will be able to return to the classroom, with schools following the Ready Schools, Safe Learners health and safety protocols established by ODE and OHA to mitigate infection risks. However, in many communities across Oregon, more work must be done to contain the spread of this disease before students will be able to return to the classroom."
Previous metrics held schools to a standard derived from case rates at both the county and state level. A statewide test positivity rate of 5 percent or lower — which Oregon has not seen since mid-September — was required for most schools to allow in-person classes for any students above the K-3 level.
For a number of southern Oregon counties that have managed to keep case rates down, K-3 students have been in classrooms while the statewide requirement kept older students on distance learning.
Brown's office released the following major changes to the previous metrics:
- Measurement period, 2-week average: County metrics will be measured for one, 2-week period instead of three 1-week periods. Particularly in small counties with low case counts, a small change in the number of cases in one week could have prevented schools from opening under the previous metrics.
- Remove statewide positivity metric: Holding all districts to a statewide positivity metric has led some schools to remain closed even when community metrics are at safer level—now only a county’s positivity rate will be used.
- Elementary School (K-6): Elementary schools provide the best opportunity for maintaining small cohorts. This group of students also has the most difficulty with comprehensive distance learning and individual study—young students are still learning to read, and can still have difficulty reading to learn. Under previous metrics, only K-3 students were allowed to return to school first, meaning that elementary schools could reopen in some districts but 4th, 5th, and 6th graders could not return to their school. Under new guidance, OHA and ODE have determined that students in grade K-6 can return so long as strict protocols are followed and with consultation with local public health.
- New metrics for in-person instruction: A full guidance document from ODE explaining the new metrics for in-person instruction is available above.
- Local decision-making: No metrics can account for all situations, particularly in a state as large and diverse as Oregon. In addition, school districts need time to plan to shift from distance learning to in-person instruction, or back if necessary. Under the new school metrics, school districts, in consultation with local public health, will make final decisions about when schools can move to in-person instruction. ODE and OHA will advise school districts during that process, and will confirm with school districts when their county has satisfied the required metrics for the return to in-person instruction. ODE, OHA, and Oregon OSHA will work together to ensure that school districts are meeting state standards for reducing risk of transmission of COVID-19 in learning and working environment for students and staff.
"Guided by data, these metrics offer an intentional and measured approach to returning to in-person instruction while recognizing the importance of meeting our kids’ academic needs — and allow for in-person instruction in places of our state where the risk of COVID-19 is lower. They also set a North Star for the rest of the state to work toward,” said Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill.
Based on the latest COVID-19 case and test positivity rates, Josephine, Klamath, Curry, and Lake counties would be eligible for a full return to in-person learning. Jackson County, which has seen record-high cases over the past two weeks, remains ineligible for any changes.
“These metrics depend on the public doing its part to reduce Oregon’s case rates so that all of our children can return to in-person instruction,” Gill said. “Oregonians can reduce spread and send our kids back to school by wearing a face covering, maintaining distance, washing hands frequently, and avoiding group gatherings.”
The new metrics are effective immediately, but Gill acknowledged on Friday that it will take affected schools some time to prepare and put plans in place.
ODE's full, updated "Ready Schools, Safe Learners" guidance for schools may be read or downloaded here.
This is a developing story and will be updated with further details as they emerge.