By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
All of Deschutes County’s elementary school students could be allowed to return to the classroom under new state COVID metrics expected to be released in the coming days.
That was the message Tuesday night from Bend-La Pine Schools Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist during a board workshop.
Nordquist said Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill revealed a draft of the new metrics during a call on Monday.
There are conflicting reports on when the announcement on the new metrics will be made, but it could come as early as Thursday.
And the draft could change.
But the new metrics Nordquist saw were “much less restrictive in terms of the number of case counts” and gave counties a range to consider instead of one number.
So instead of needing three straight weeks with 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents to reopen schools for grades K-3, the new metric would look at a range of the two-week average of cases per 100,000 residents.
“We haven’t abandoned the idea of getting our 4-5s in full time, but as long as those social distancing barriers exist that’s going be a challenge.”
– BLP Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist
Deschutes County does not meet the current metric, meaning the earliest K-3 students can return to the classroom is Nov. 30th.
“We meet the new metrics under the new guidelines to go ahead and start,” Nordquist said, adding that the new guidelines also allow for the return of 4th and 5th graders. (And 6th graders where they attend alongside the younger grades.)
But still up in the air is whether the new metrics will be a requirement or a recommendation and whether the state will allow districts to restart right away or wait until a specific date.
“We are absolutely committed to getting our students back into school as soon as the metrics allow,” she said.
Nordquist said the district will still stagger the restart by first bringing back kids in grades K-3 in a hybrid/alternative days model for a week or two.
Those students would then return to full-time, in-person instruction while kids in grades 4-5 return on alternating days in a hybrid in-person/distance learning model.
She said there simply isn’t enough space or staffing in the schools to bring back all the students full time and still abide by social distancing rules.
“We haven’t abandoned the idea of getting our 4-5s in full time, but as long as those social distancing barriers exist that’s going be a challenge,” she said.
And the COVID cases remain too high still to think about returning middle and high schoolers.
Nordquist also said if community spread of COVID continued and it was enough to keep kids out of schools into the new year, Gov. Kate Brown would implement tighter restrictions on businesses and close down higher-risk activities.
Gill acknowledged the health risks in bringing students back but said there were some additional negative health and safety issues to consider.
He told the group there were 1,500 fewer child abuse cases reported across the state in September 2020 than in September last year.
Many child abuse case reports start in schools with teachers or other trusted adults noticing a child who may be in danger.
Additionally, Gill told educators that after looking at areas where schools reopened across the world and U.S., the data showed schools weren’t a significant contributor to the community spread of COVID.