Nov. 4, 2020 — Last Friday, Oct. 30, Governor Kate Brown announced changes to Oregon’s school metrics. The changes will allow more students to return to classroom instruction while maintaining health and safety measures already in place. The new metrics come as a result of the latest CDC guidance along with lessons learned from school districts across the country in order to determine the best practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in public schools.
“Our updated metrics can help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction,” said Brown. “These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students.”
With COVID-19 likely to be present in communities throughout Oregon for the foreseeable future, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) also released an update on Friday to its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, which outlines strict health and safety protocols aimed at lowering the risk of COVID-19 infection among students, parents, educators and support staff.
“Doctors tell me that ‘zero risk’ is not the way forward. It can’t be,” Brown said. “Coronavirus is here but we can be thoughtful and smart about minimizing risks so we can live our lives as safely as possible.”
Brown added that it’s also clear that the state must prioritize getting students back into the classroom for in-person instruction in a way that minimizes risk to the greatest extent possible.
“While we are making adjustments to the metrics based on our best judgment of the science, they are not radical shifts. Not every school district across the state will suddenly be able to meet these metrics and reopen right away,” said Brown. “In fact, the vast majority of our students will not be able to return to class. However, close to 130,000 students will potentially be able to return to in-person instruction with these metrics, and that’s a really good thing.”
A key lesson from reviewing national school data, according to ODE Director Colt Gill, is that Oregon school districts can help protect the health and well-being of both students and staff during in-person instruction when community spread is sufficiently low — and exercised in conjunction with strictly adhering to health and safety protocols already in place.
“Guided by data, these new 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,” said Gill, who added that the metrics also set a “North Star” for the rest of the state to work toward. “We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with more than access to an equitable education. Schools are a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services.”
Key changes to the metrics include:
“As we learn more about the progression of COVID-19 in Oregon, the effectiveness of future vaccines and other mitigation efforts, and gain more information about the transmission of COVID-19 in structured settings like schools, ODE and OHA are committed to reviewing the metrics again in the coming weeks,” said Gill.
The new metrics took effect immediately and, based on this week’s data points, could allow nearly 130,000 students to return to some in-person instruction. The ODE is recommending that schools consider a methodical and cautious approach, returning only a portion of the school population first, then adding more students on-site over time. This would allow schools to build new safety routines, stabilize cohorts and avoid sudden, disruptive transitions back to Comprehensive Distance Learning due to quarantine or isolation.
Prior to last Friday’s updated state metrics, Siuslaw and Mapleton school districts have been providing Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) to all students, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and were in the preliminary stages of planning limited in-person instruction at some point. Though these new metrics provide a shift towards getting students back into the classroom, based on the current metrics and Monday’s latest county case rate (133 per 100K over the last 14 days), Lane County will remain in the Transition Phase and will not be among those counties immediately implementing in-person instruction. The Transition Phase requires school districts in Lane County to continue Comprehensive Distance Learning with only limited in-person instruction.
“I was happy to see the exception for school districts affected by the wildfires as well as more clear definition and direction in the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance,” said Mapleton School District Superintendent Jodi O’Mara. “I was also pleased to see the cohort size for limited in-person instruction was raised from 10 to 20. This will allow schools to serve more students with less restrictions on transportation cohort size.”
Currently, Mapleton School District is planning for limited in-person instruction to start with middle and high school students, then adding grades K-6.
“We will start with a limited number of K-12 grade students and look to increase that number after the holiday break in January if the county’s test positivity rate and case rate per 100,000 continues to decline,” said O’Mara, who added that the district will be reaching out to all families in the coming days to explain the next steps and timeline for the limited in-person instructional model.
“Every single employee in the school district misses the students and the routine that comes with a normal school day,” O’Mara said. “And we know the students miss the socialization, routines, breakfast and lunch, learning new things, and many of the things that come with attending school. We hope to be back on campus in on-site or hybrid learning at the beginning of 2021.”
In the Siuslaw School District, staff are identifying which student groups need targeted intervention first, and then will be looking at general rotations of students for additional assistance. According to superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak, there are several logistical hurdles to clear in limited in-person instruction. Among the challenges is creating cohorts of students in zones by transportation model — depending upon whether parents will elect to send students back to campus at all.
“Initial surveys of families show that many would not send students back to campus at all this year, so there will be a need to move these students into unique distance learning groups with teachers that are only doing distance work,” said Grzeskowiak. “This is almost like re-doing registration again.”
The new metrics still set different grade-level criteria. In the Transition Phase, much like Mapleton, the Siuslaw School District is planning for limited in-person instruction for all grade levels. However, unlike Mapleton, once the county case rate drops below 100, Siuslaw will then begin phasing elementary grades back onto campus while middle and high school students will remain in distance learning with limited in-person instruction.
“It’s not until the county case rate drops under 50 that middle and high school students can be considered for a small cohort, hybrid schedule,” said Grzeskowiak, who added that November is not an optimal month to begin rolling out a new in-person learning model. “This week is the first week into the new state scheme, and next week is the end of the quarter is a three-day week with Veterans Day on Wednesday. When the quarter ends, then there is one full week before Thanksgiving week.”
Because of the sporadic nature of the next several weeks, the district will most likely wait to implement the bulk of limited in-person instruction until after the Thanksgiving holiday.
On the upside, Grzeskowiak said the benefit to the new state metric scheme is the “safe harbor” rules. In the old system, schools had to shift quickly out of a phase or were prevented from starting a phase as the metrics shifted week by week. Under the new scheme, once a learning model has started, it becomes harder to be moved back phases as long as there is no spread within the schools itself.
“The district is on track for some in-person instruction and the new metrics provide new options as well as some new challenges,” Grzeskowiak said.
And while school districts focus on returning students to some form of in-person learning model, there is one component to the challenge that remains out of the hands of administrators and individual districts: Public adherence to COVID-19 guidelines and reducing viral spread.
“These latest 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.”
School safety and other COVID-19 school-related questions can be directed to [email protected] Concerns about compliance can file a confidential complaint at 1-833-604-0884.