With omicron COVID cases surging across the state, health officials are advising schools districts to be extra vigilant with COVID safety protocols as kids return to class Monday.
“We are hoping that folks who manage the schools and the athletics for the schools will keep kids masked during this period of time, not only for COVID and Omicron, which like I just said it going to be a problem, but also because it is winter virus season,” said Chief Medical Officer at St. Charles Bend, Dr. Doug Merrill.
Local COVID cases have spiked this week, with Deschutes County reporting nearly 800 cases in the last three days – well above last week’s total of 561.
Merrill says kids are more susceptible to the omicron variant than other COVID variants.
Deschutes County Public Health says this is the wrong time for schools and students to relax on COVID safety measures.
“Mask wearing is super important, continuing to maintain that social distancing, for students to abide by the infection prevention practices that their nurses and teachers are trying to put into place in the classroom setting. Those are all really important to continue to follow,” said Carissa Heinige, Deschutes County Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator.
The Redmond and Culver school districts say they have no plans to delay school due to COVID surges currently, but Culver Superintendent Stefani Garber says parents should be prepared for possible weather delays come Monday.
“We will continue all of our typical mitigation strategies and are closely monitoring the spread of the virus and tracking cases at our schools, classrooms and community,” the letter said.
“Keeping schools open for in-person learning is critical for the educational and social emotional health of our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Steven Cook. “To maintain in-person instruction we need to do all we can to reduce spread so that our students and staff remain healthy and at school. We also need your help.”
Deschutes County Health Services will host a free vaccine clinic for ages 5-11 at Pilot Butte Middle School Monday, January 3 from 4 to 7 p.m.
First and second doses are available for all ages, no appointments needed.
The letter urged parents to “up your mask game” by making sure their children were wearing properly fitted masks and suggested upgrading to KN95 models.
Dr. Suzanne Mendez, a pediatric hospitalist at St. Charles, said in the email to make sure masks are getting washed or changed out daily.
“Additionally, while it is not a requirement, masking while participating in indoor sports is a good idea, especially over the next two to four weeks,” said Mendez.
The Crook County School District said it will prioritize both safety and keeping schools open.
Communication Director Jason Carr said in a statement:
“Our Covid-19 approach remains the same as it was before Omicron. We’ll continue to rely on our nurses for daily management and contact tracing,” said Crook County Communication Director Jason Carr. “We’ve approved the use of the state’s Test-to-Stay program, which began before Christmas Break. We will also adopt the new 5-day quarantine created by CDC and adopted by the Oregon Health Authority. “Both Test to Stay and the shorter quarantines will help mitigate the amount of time staff/students are out of school. As we have since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ll make adjustments if necessary. As one of the first school districts in the state to bring students back full time last year, we have prioritized both safety and keeping schools open. Those will continue to be top priorities for us moving into 2022.”
Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Education sent a letter to school districts saying keeping kids in class was a top priority.
“There are no immediate steps you need to take. Continue to watch the progress of the omicron variant in Oregon, partner with public health on vaccination clinics and be ready to reinforce all layered health and safety protocols in January.”
You can read the full letter to Bend-La Pine parents below:
Bend-La Pine Schools is ready to welcome students back in our school and classrooms on Monday, January 3. We have had a number of families reach out and ask how school might look, in response to the anticipated surge of COVID-19 cases among our youth in the coming days. The following is what we know to date, what we are hearing from our medical partners, and what you can expect when your students return.
On Wednesday, Deschutes County recorded the single largest number of positive tests for COVID-19, ever. Already St. Charles Health System is reporting “crisis levels” of pediatric admissions to its hospitals and other hospitals around the state, due both to COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. The health system’s pediatric wards are full, and children are being transported to Portland and elsewhere.
“This is already a tough time of year for kids due to respiratory viruses like RSV and the flu, and we’re now expecting a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in about a week,” said Dr. Suzanne Mendez, a pediatric hospitalist at St. Charles. “We’re watching closely what is happening in New York, where hospitals are seeing a four-fold increase of children hospitalized with COVID-19, and we’re concerned our region may be on a similar path.”
She also notes that Deschutes County’s COVID-19 rates of infection are among the highest per 100k in the state.
Superintendent Dr. Steven Cook says, “Keeping schools open for in-person learning is critical for the educational and social emotional health of our students. To maintain in-person instruction we need to do all we can to reduce spread so that our students and staff remain healthy and at school. We also need your help.”
What can you expect to see at your schools during this Omicron surge?
First of all, we will continue all of our typical mitigation strategies – hand hygiene promotion, enhanced ventilation, promotion and enforcement of masking, social distancing to the extent possible, and effective contact tracing.
We are closely monitoring the spread of the virus and tracking cases at our schools, classrooms and community. We know there will likely be an impact in our schools and we are prepared to elevate to more restrictive mitigation strategies, such as limiting spectators, elimination of non-essential gatherings, or even cancellation of extracurricular events, as case increases warrant. We will endeavor to approach this on a school by school basis, however the conditions may not allow for this. Stay updated on our COVID dashboard, as conditions change.
How can families help keep in-person learning and reduce the amount of COVID-19 in our schools?
Get vaccinated. First and foremost, get vaccinated or boosted if you qualify. Deschutes County Health Services is hosting a free vaccine clinic for ages 5-11 at Pilot Butte Middle School Monday, January 3 from 4 to 7 p.m. First and second doses are available for all ages, no appointments needed.
Keep it close. Limit social gathering to those in your household to the extent possible, maintain social distance when around others, avoid crowds and practice good hand hygiene.
Up your mask game. Make sure it fits and wear it correctly. Consider moving from a cloth mask to a 3-ply medical grade mask; or better yet, a KN95 mask. As you prepare backpacks and bags for the return to school, take a moment to make sure your children are wearing well-fitted masks.
Dr. Mendez encourages families to wash masks daily and add additional masks in students’ bags so that they have a backup in case masks get wet with the weather. “Additionally, while it is not a requirement, masking while participating in indoor sports is a good idea, especially over the next two to four weeks,” said Mendez.
Check for wellness every day. Students and staff who are experiencing the following symptoms are expected to stay home: Cough, temperature of 100.4°F or higher, chills, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, sore throat, nasal congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting or diarrhea.
Get tested. We want to remind families not to assume a mild respiratory illness is a routine “cold”; test for COVID-19. Although COVID-19 is usually mild in children, there are risks of serious illness and more for children, and if not isolated they can contribute to community transmission.
COCC offers free rapid PCR testing at their Bend and Redmond campuses, additional testing sites can be found at the Deschutes County COVID webpage.
Quarantine/Isolations and Mitigation
We continue to report positive cases and quarantines on our COVID-19 dashboard and our contact tracing team continues to perform case investigation and connect with close contacts for positive cases. Healthy, masked students and staff who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 at school may also be eligible to take part in our Test to Stay program, which allows shortened quarantines in some circumstances.
Note: While the CDC recently announced new guidelines to shorten the length of quarantines and isolation, at this time, our quarantine and isolation guidelines are unchanged, as we follow the guidance from the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Health Authority and our local health authority.
Thank you for doing what you can to help us slow the spread of COVID-19 in Central Oregon and in our school community.