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Oregon Schools Face Tough Climb To On-Campus Learning

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Gov. Kate Brown laid out metrics that school districts will have to meet to hold in-person classes. Several of Oregon's largest districts say they'll stay with remote education until at least November.

If the first day of school was this week, Oregon public and private schools would not be able to open for in-person learning under the latest coronavirus testing-related metrics unveiled by Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday.

According to the latest county reopening guidelines, the entire state needs to have a weekly positivity rate of less than 5% for three weeks. The latest statewide positivity rates for COVID-19 tests for the previous three weeks were 5.8%, 5.8% and 4.6%.

Brown’s latest announcement was shortly followed by the news that Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools, will have online classes only until at least Nov. 5. Beaverton School District shortly followed suit and announced they will be conducting classes online until at least Nov. 13. Salem-Keizer, North Clackamas and Tigard-Tualatin districts will also move directly to holding online courses.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero warned that online classes could stretch past November for his district.

“As an educator, I know that there is no true replacement for face-to-face learning and the interaction between a student and a dedicated teacher or staff member,” Guerrero said in a statement. “But our announcement today is in keeping with our highest priority during a global pandemic, which is the health and well being of our students and employees.”

Portland Public Schools will follow a regular weekly schedule where students have daily interactions with their teachers. Grades will be given and attendance taken.

The governor warned in her press conference this school year would “not look like any other school year” in state history.

Brown said health and public safety served as her north star when crafting the details of the school reopening guidelines.

“We need to be cautious so schools don’t become places where the virus spreads,” the governor said.

Brown said she’s also unwilling to lose an entire school year for any of Oregon’s children. The governor said she’s spending an additional $28 million to help boost teacher training and improve internet access for people who have accessibility challenges.

The governor’s metrics state for schools to reopen the county where the school is located must have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day span for three consecutive weeks. The test positivity rate in the county also needs to be 5% or lower over a seven-day span for three weeks in a row.

There are exceptions to the rule, too, for rural schools and for students in grades K-3. School districts in many rural communities are small, and have fewer than 100 students. Those districts also need to have a positivity rate below 5%, but infection rates can be up to 30 out of 100,0000 for three consecutive weeks. That’s also the case for students in grades K-3. There also can’t be any active outbreaks in the community.

The “positivity rate” is an indicator of how widespread COVID-19 is relative to the number of tests available. In simpler terms, the positivity rate is the percentage of total tests that come back positive. Ideally, the state would be able to test so many people — combined with robust contact tracing and community surveys — that a smaller percentage of tests return positive.

Some research indicates that children under age 10 are less likely to get very sick if they contract COVID-19, and are also less likely to spread it. It’s unclear why that happens. Some researchers have theorized that since kids breathe closer to the ground and have smaller lungs, they don’t send as much of the virus into the air when they breathe or talk, although there remains a debate over whether the data is firm on how much younger children are impacted by the virus.

If cases go up, schools will need to close. If the number of active cases reaches 20 per 100,000 people in a week, or if the positivity rate 7.5% or higher over seven days, districts need to make plans to start distance learning. If cases hit 30 per 100,000 and the district has a 10% positivity rate over a seven-day period, schools will need to return to distance learning.

Ian Maurer, a math teacher at Cleveland High School in Portland, was part of the group of teachers who protested from their cars in a caravan to the state Capitol on Monday. Maurer said the grassroots group that now includes thousands of teachers from across the state is pushing for no new COVID-19 cases for 14 days before in-person instruction can resume in a certain county.

“The biggest concern is when there are still cases out there in the community, gathering 1,000 or 2,000 people in a building every day is just going to create more cases,” Maurer said.

Maurer said the teachers who are reluctant to return to the classrooms this fall — out of concern for their families’ and students’ health — are currently working to figure out a way to improve distance learning, especially for those in rural areas.

“This isn’t going to be distance learning of the spring,” he said. “That was a crisis response.”

Maurer also said many of the teachers hope that by pushing back on reopening schools until cases drop it will incentive people in the state to take the coronavirus more seriously and push people to wear masks and socially distance.

“I think what’s important is we put the pressure on the people to do the things in the community to make it safe for schools to open,” he said.

Oregon Health Authority reported 342 new confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the state total to 17,416. The state also reported 14 new deaths — a new record for deaths reported in a single day.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake, Erin Ross