Students in Oregon’s rural and remote school districts have been given some help when it comes to returning to the classroom.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Oregon Department of Education released its latest guidance for reopening schools statewide. All schools in Oregon have been closed since mid-March when COVID-19 began spreading throughout the state.
A previous guidance that was released on July 28 introduced ODE’s metrics-based approach to reopening schools, and the metrics are as follows:
• County case rate: Less than or equal to 10 cases per 100,000 population in the preceding seven days.
• County test positivity: Less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.
• State test positivity: Less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.
The new restrictions also came with an exemption for students between kindergarten and third grade, remote and rural small schools, and students who require needed support (students with disabilities, career and technical education classes).
However, those restrictions also come with their own metrics in order to qualify:
• COVID-19 is not actively spreading among the school community.
• The case rate in the county is less than or equal to 30 cases per per 100,000 population in the preceding 14 days.
• The test positive rate in the county is less than or equal to 5% in the preceding 14 days.
• Schools fully comply with sections 1-3 of the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance.
But on Tuesday, ODE released further amendments to the exemptions list, which gives rural and remote school districts in Oregon more opportunities to let students back into classrooms.
For counties with a population density of less than six people per square mile (Malheur County qualifies under this metric), schools are able to work with local health officials to return to in-person school if the county’s total COVID-19 cases in the last three weeks is less than or equal to 30, with less than half of those cases coming in the last week of the three week period.
In this case, the local health authority will have to indicate that there is no community spread in the school district.
For school districts that serve a small population (fewer than 75 students), schools are able to work with local health authorities, even if the county does not meet the criteria of reopening. For Malheur County, this would include Jordan Valley, Juntura and Arock school districts.
For counties with a population below 30,000, schools are able to return to in-person class if the total county COVID-19 cases for the last three weeks are less than or equal to 30 with less than half of cases reported in the last weeks of the three-week period.
The local health authority must indicate that there is no community spread.
Calling the new guidance from ODE a “step in the right direction,” Vale School District Superintendent Alisha McBride said she was happy to see the change in the metrics, which would be difficult for smaller counties.
“It needed to be achievable,” McBride said.
While Ontario still has the highest rate of COVID-19 case returns in the county, Ontario School District Public Relations and Communications Director Taryn Smith said the schools are working to adapt the new guidance to their curriculum.
“We appreciate the support and grace our community has shown us,” Smith said. “We encourage them to continue to offer feedback and comments to help us evolve our practices.”
Bringing in students
For schools that are operating via distance learning, the new guidance from ODE also includes a guidance for limited in-person instruction as long as they complete an operational blueprint and submit it to their local board, ODE and its local public health authority.
Schools are allowed to bring students in based on need, including the following:
• Address connectivity issues, including a focus on students with limited or no internet access;
• Provide academic support;
• Access assessment;
• Provide social, emotional, or mental health support;
• Build educator-to-student relationships;
• Support live peer-to-peer interaction;
• Support ongoing engagement and attendance;
• Build school community and culture;
• Ensure culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy;
• Prepare for a return to in-person instruction; and
• Provide voluntary supplemental supports.
The guidance ads that all in-person instruction must be voluntary and can’t be required for any grades. Students must be confined to cohorts of no more than 10 students. A school is limited to bringing 250 students into the school per week.
McBride added that Vale School District is currently working to map out how the school district can bring students back into classrooms.
“Having that in-person contact is extremely valuable,” McBride said. “We will be able to offer more comprehensive lessons now.”