School board reviews state COVID-19 advisory

Benny Westcott

Sweet Home School District School Board members reviewed the Jan. 3 Oregon Department of Education’s school health advisory, issued earlier this month.

The ODE recommended that schools pause extracurricular activities or ensure they follow the same layered mitigation safety protocols practiced during the school day to protect against COVID-19. The ODE described the Jan. 3 advisory as “the most critical and urgent issued to date.”

The changes have come as the ODE predicts that Oregon communities will be experiencing the impacts of the Omicron variant over the next several weeks.

The ODE’s statement explained that while Omicron may result in less severe disease than previous variants, it spreads “much more quickly.” The statement also noted that an incoming surge “is likely to be much steeper than the Delta variant, impacting hospitals more severely than we experienced in the fall.”

The ODE’s advisory warned that “student access to in-person instruction is under threat,” and that indoor settings in which people do not adhere with purpose and intention to masking requirements and other layered mitigation safety protocols are expected to result in rapid transmission.

But one new procedure could allow more students who have been exposed to COVID-19 to remain in school.The Jan. 3 ODE guidance called for “test to stay” procedures, a protocol and form of modified quarantine that allows exposed individuals to attend school during their quarantine period if they remain symptom-free and test negative for COVID-19.

A “self-test” must be administered at a designated school testing site, according to ODE. It involves the tester inserting the soft end of a testing swab in his or her nose, handing the swab back to a staff member, and awaiting results.

After a person is identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case, the student must test twice within a seven-day period. Testing is recommended immediately after being identified as a close contact and again five to seven days after exposure.

District staff are being trained to administer the new testing by viewing twenty-minute long instructional videos online, said Director of Student Services Thad Holub.

Before a self-test can be administered, ODE specifies that a student’s family has to provide consent for COVID-19 testing and agree to follow “test to stay” requirements, which include quarantining outside of school and wearing a mask when participating in extracurricular activities.

The ODE guidance also notes that if a child is exposed to COVID-19, but is vaccinated, they do not have to quarantine or be tested. Also, if an unvaccinated child is exposed to COVID-19 at home or during extracurricular activities where masking is optional, the test to stay protocol is not an option.

The ODE guidelines emphasized that “It is our highest priority to keep kids learning in person every day. The department’s literature argued that nearly all children learn better when taught in-person, children and families rely on schools to provide a caring and safe environment, many students need access to a solid breakfast and a warm lunch, and “consistency matters” for parents and families.

Supt. Lisa Riggs will participate Tuesday, Jan. 11, in what she called an “off-the-record” meeting with representatives from ODE and the Oregon School Boards Association to discuss the COVID-19 situation in schools.

Board members were largely silent after viewing a slide presentation on the situation.

“I’m worried about the chances of a shutdown,” said Steve Thorpe, a math teacher at the high school and the district’s certified union representative. “I don’t want it, and I know a lot of people don’t want it. We want to keep kids in seats, in sports and in clubs. We just had a winter formal, and kids’ve got to be normal.”

He spoke with pride on how his fellow staff members are dealing with adversity “I get to see heroes on a daily basis,” Thorpe said. “We are moving through, getting through to the next term. I don’t feel as though we are dragging along. We are professionals, and we’re going to finish.”

Board Chairman Jason Redick added “This board knows how hard it has been for staff, being in there every day working with this stuff. It’s because of you all that this place keeps going.”

In other action Monday:

— Business Manager Kevin Strong shared that nearly halfway through the 2021-22 fiscal year, general fund spending has increased by almost $550,000 compared to the same time period in the prior year. He said that the primary reasons for that increase are more district spending on classified staff wages, substitutes, extra-duty stipends, bus fuel, and property insurance premiums.

— Riggs read a proclamation from Gov. Kate Brown announcing January 2022 as School Board Recognition Month in Oregon. The proclamation stated that “Oregonians rely on a robust public education system to ensure a prosperous quality of life and strong economic health for Oregon, and locally elected boards fulfill leadership roles and serve as an important conduit through which teachers, parents, businesses and communities demonstrate the care, creativity, and support that lead to student achievement.”

n The board unanimously voted to approve the 2022-23 proposed budget calendar, which lays out the schedule Budget Committee members will follow in planning the district’s finances for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The first Budget Committee meeting will take place on May 9 at 5 p.m.