By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
Bend-La Pine and Redmond schools could have the green light to bring elementary students back to class thanks to new COVID metrics announced Friday by the state.
But even with the new, more lenient metrics designed to open more schools, a week-long spike in COVID cases in Deschutes County could douse the excitement of a possible return.
Deschutes County is among nine counties initially approved by the Oregon Department of Education to bring back kids in grades K-5 (and 6th grade in schools where they attend with the lower grades).
Fifteen counties, including Jefferson County, have been approved for a full return of students in grades K-12.
If metrics this week are favorable it will be up to the school districts to determine when to bring kids back, based on how ready they are in terms of the strict COVID safety rules that remain in place.
“We want our kids at in-person instruction. We believe that most of our teachers want to be in person with their students,” said Colt Gill, the direction of the Oregon Department of Education. “But, everybody wants to do that with stability and with as little risk as possible.”
In a letter to families Friday night, Bend-La Pine officials said “we are committed to making the announcement as soon as we can regarding our return to school plans for elementary students to give staff and families as much time as possible to plan for the transition.”
But in a Facebook group post earlier Friday, BLP School Board Chairwoman Carrie Douglass wrote that if the district meets the metric on Monday, the earliest possible return would be Nov. 16th.
“The weakening of re-opening metrics must be met with strengthening of public health protocols for our communities and our schools.”
– Bend Education Association President Sarah Barclay
Redmond officials also said they will reach out to parents today with news on an earliest possible start date. The district will announce its formal plan on Monday after it sees the new COVID data.
“We have staff members that haven’t been on-site in months, they have to undergo training, we need to change the bus system,” said Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline. “There’s a wide range of procedures that need to take place.”
The new, much less restrictive metrics, are now based on the two-week case rate per 100,000 residents instead of three one-week periods.
Additionally, districts will consider the local county’s test positivity rate – not the state’s – in determining whether it’s safe to go back.
Counties with 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 residents can offer a hybrid in-person/distance learning model. Counties with fewer than 50 cases/100,000 residents can return fully to on-site learning.
Deschutes County was at 68.4/100,000 over the last two weeks.
But this week’s COVID data is concerning as Deschutes County has reported 134 cases, its highest one-week total to date.
“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,” Gill said.
Overall, the new guidelines give local school districts much more flexibility in determining what’s best for students in their communities.
The Bend teachers’ union President Sarah Barclay issued a statement late Friday raising some concerns with the relaxed metrics.
“Oregon and the U.S. continue to see record cases of COVID-19, and there is no evidence that case growth will slow down in the coming months. If we hope to reopen Oregon’s schools for in-person instruction our community must get serious about taking the public health steps necessary to contain this virus,” she said. “The weakening of re-opening metrics must be met with strengthening of public health protocols for our communities and our schools.”
She said the district must have clear directives about how they respond to an outbreak in the community and schools and accommodations must be made for kids and teachers who “fear for their health and the health of their families.”
“Nobody wants to return to the classroom more than Oregon educators, but we must only bring students back when we can ensure that we’re able to protect the health and safety of both students and staff,” she said.
Barclay also squelched rumors that teachers were organizing a sickout or planning a strike over the new metrics.
“We will continue to work with Bend-La Pine School District to ensure the safety of our members, students, and community as we navigate these new metrics,” she said.
The ODE said they take effect immediately and, based on last week’s COVID data, potentially allow close to 130,000 students to return to some in-person instruction.
If the metrics allow, Bend-La Pine and Redmond officials have said they will start with a hybrid model where half the students would attend Mondays and Thursdays with the other half attending Tuesdays and Fridays.
All students would attend online on Wednesdays.
“This will allow schools to build new safety routines, stabilize cohorts, and avoid sudden, disruptive transitions back to Comprehensive Distance Learning due to quarantine or isolation,” according to the ODE.
Bend-La Pine plans to do this for a week or so before returning K-3 students full time while students in grades 4-5 would continue the hybrid model.
Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance requires schools to comply with specific guidelines on:
- Physical distancing
- Face coverings
- Hand hygiene
- Cleaning and disinfecting
- Airflow and ventilation
- And, effective screening, and responses to cases with quick access to testing and implementing isolation and quarantining
BLP Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist said there isn’t enough space in schools currently to have everyone back full time and still abide by social distancing rules.
Redmond officials say their goal is to bring back all K-5 full time after a couple of weeks of transition time.
Crook County, where students have been back in the classroom for nearly a month, is actually listed among those that are not able to reopen due to a recent spike in cases there.
But district officials say they can continue to operate under the previous metrics through January 4th. If cases spiked after that, they would be held to the new metrics.
“We’ll continue to take all safety precautions seriously and make sure our district goes above and beyond what the state requires,” said Superintendent Sara Johnson “I’ve been really proud of our staff – and especially our custodians and bus drivers – who work tirelessly to sanitize, keep the air flow in our schools moving, and do everything possible to reduce any possible spread of the virus.”
Johnson applauded the new metrics.
“The updated metrics do a much better job of taking into account our community’s population size and allow us to coordinate more closely with the Crook County Health Department when determining the safety of keeping schools open,” she said.
“I was thrilled to see them frankly,” she said. “I feel like our new metrics finally align with other states. We had some of the strictest metrics in the country, and it was keeping too many kids out of schools.”
Brown said the new metrics align with the CDC and are more in sync with what other states, like California, are doing.
The changes are a long-time coming as Oregon leaders watched schools reopen across the country and the world.
“A key lesson from the review of national school data is that Oregon school districts can help protect student and staff health and well-being during in-person instruction when community spread is sufficiently low and when school districts strictly adhere to the health and safety protocols now in place in Oregon,” the ODE said in a statement.
Gill hoped teachers and families will feel comfortable returning to classrooms understanding all the safety requirements in place.
“When there is strong fidelity to safety protocols…schools are not super spreader sites,” he said.
And while the new metrics provide Oregon counties much more leeway in terms of rising case counts, the ODE said continued community spread of the virus will lead to another shutdown.
“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.”