SALEM — To resume in-person school this fall, Oregon counties and the state as a whole must meet a low threshold of COVID-19 cases that only one county meets, according to a new mandate Gov. Kate Brown issued Tuesday.
The county in which a school district is located must meet these standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less positive tests per week, according to Brown’s new mandate. The state also must have 5% or less positive tests as a whole, the new rule states.
The rule is slightly less strict for kindergarten through third grade classes, or rural school districts with fewer than 100 students. Those grades and school districts can reopen in-person education if their home counties have 30 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, the mandate states.
Not only are younger children less likely to catch, show symptoms of or transmit COVID-19 to others, but in-person learning is more crucial at that age, said state health officer Dean Sidelinger.
“These younger students need access to in-person education to develop literacy and numeracy skills they need that are critical to their continued learning,” he said.
However, an area that meets these standards at first but later has an uptick in COVID-19 cases could be forced to transition back to at-home distance learning.
School districts must make distance learning plans if the local county has 20 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and/or 7.5% or more of COVID-19 tests in the county are positive. Districts will immediately return to distance learning if the local county has 30 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and 10% or more of local COVID-19 tests are positive.
“Let me be really clear: I am absolutely unwilling to lose an entire school year for any of our kids,” Brown said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “But it is also incumbent on all of us … to take every measure to slow the spread of this disease so we can get our kids into school as quickly as possible.”
As of Wednesday, Oregon has had 17,712 COVID-19 cases, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
From April through the end of June, less than 5% of COVID-19 tests in Oregon returned positive, Sidelinger said. In July, the percentage of positive tests rose to close to 6%, he said, but it has been trending down again recently, he added.
Only five Oregon counties had fewer than 10 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, according to state data. All five of these counties — Sherman, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler — are rural and relatively small in population.
When stretched out to the three-week requirement of fewer than 10 new cases per week, only Wheeler County qualifies to re-open classrooms for all students.
The major Oregon counties with the fewest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents were Benton and Lane counties, with about 10 and 16 cases per 100,000, respectively.
To help make distance learning more effective in Oregon schools that need to do so, Brown announced a release of $28 million of emergency funds to go toward internet hotspots, internet-accessible computers, online curriculum and teacher training.
Brown and Sidelinger also urged Oregonians to keep wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands to lower COVID-19 numbers so students can return to class.
“We can’t relent, especially if we all work together to reopen schools and get students back in desks,” Sidelinger said.