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Governor loosens restrictions on kids returning to school

Decision brings Linn County closer to K-6 in-classroom instruction

Of The New Era

Governor Kate Brown announced a change to school re-opening metrics today that may allow younger students in Linn County to start in-person or hybrid learning as soon as next week.

The metrics have shifted to allow a slightly higher case count for students returning to schools: on-site and distance learning now involves a 5-8% test positivity rate and 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 over the course of the previous 14 days. Linn County is very close to meeting those requirements, and the COVID numbers will be updated Monday.

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said: "The metrics are effective starting today, and schools will begin reviewing local county data related to the metrics next week."

On-site instruction for all students can now occur when there are fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period. Linn County met those metric standards in late August and early September, but hasn't met them since then. Statewide COVID metrics are no longer relevant to local-level school openings.

For the week ending Oct. 24, Linn County had 47.4 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of 5.1%. The prior week, it had 56.1 cases per 100,000 and a 4.3% positivity rate. Combined, the county remained above the 50 cases per 100,000 metric, but may allow younger students to return if the combined test rate is low enough.

The change applies the age-based separation in metrics to kindergarteners through sixth-graders, rather than just K through 3. Previously, scientists believed the youngest students were at less risk of contracting and spreading the virus. That science has not held up over time, but the state is keeping separate standards for older children because cohorts at the elementary school level are much easier to create and maintain for the youngest students, who tend to stick to one classroom and one teacher, State Epidemiologist Tom Jeanne said.

"Older students have a more personalized schedule that leads to more mixing between groups," he added, and the youngest students have higher needs for in-person contact for their cognitive and emotional development.

The governor said the change would immediately qualify 130,000 students across the state for in-person instruction, though the majority of students are still required to stay home because of record-breaking COVID numbers across the state.

"Oregon's cases are rising," Brown said. "The second wave we've all been worried about is here."

Gill said the new metrics set "reachable targets for counties to strive for."

Indeed, the change to a 14-day period can help level out sudden outbreaks that are quickly controlled, and falls in line with how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts COVID data.

"These metrics are set at a level Oregon has met in the past, and nearly every county has met in the past," he said. "We're asking every Oregonian to really think about the kids right now and their own behavior as it relates to COVID-19."

Brown emphasized the need to wear masks, socially distance, and avoid in-person gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID and help students return to school. She also suggested Oregonians get the flu shot to prevent "a double pandemic."

In a letter posted immediately after the governor's press conference, Sweet Home schools Supt. Tom Yahraes said that the new county metric standards "greatly assist us in being able to bring students back to school for hybrid in-person learning."

"These new metrics are far more reachable for all students to return to physical classrooms than the previous metrics," he said. "We are reviewing the new standards and guidance. After our review, we will announce how the new standards impact our re-opening plans and outline the steps we will take to reopen when our county meets the new metric standards.  Most importantly, we will be working with our teaching staff and every department to build safe and orderly phases to bring all students back to school while following Oregon Health Authority COVID health and safety protocols."