Salem-Keizer students won’t be back in school buildings until at least November under new guidelines

Mary Eyre Elementary School on Sept. 3, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem students won’t be back in a school building come September unless the number of new people with Covid slows dramatically in the coming weeks.

Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced Oregon schools can’t hold class in person unless the county they’re in records fewer than 10 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents each week for three weeks in a row.

The rules apply to all schools, public and private.

DOCUMENT: State metrics for school reopening

It’s a target neither Marion nor Polk County is close to meeting. Marion County had 264 residents diagnosed with Covid in the past week and would need no more than 34 per week to hit the target. Polk County added 58 new cases in the past week and would need no more than eight per week to bring students back into buildings.

Counties would also have to have 5% or fewer Covid tests come back positive each week, a target Marion County has not met since the pandemic began, and that Polk County has not met in recent weeks. Oregon as a whole would also have to have fewer than 5% of tests come back positive per week for any schools to reopen.

“Both of these things are true: good schools improve health and we need to be cautious so that schools don’t become places where the virus spreads,” Brown said in a news conference.

She said the state would disburse $28 million to school districts to buy mobile hotspots, computers and train teachers to aid with online instruction.

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry said the district will not open for in-person classes until at least Nov. 16, the end of the first nine-week grading period of the year. High school juniors and seniors won’t be back in person until spring semester, she said.

District officials have been planning for a hybrid model, where students would have class at schools two days per week and work online the other three. But teachers and some parents have pushed back in recent weeks, saying an in-person return to school wouldn’t be safe unless case counts were lower.

District spokesman Aaron Harada said Salem-Keizer would use Marion County data to guide reopening decisions. The district could choose to open only Polk County schools if the county meets metrics, provided students and staff live in Polk County, Oregon Education Department spokesman Marc Siegel said.

The state rules have some flexibility for younger students, allowing districts to bring in kindergarten through third graders and special education students under strict health guidelines when weekly cases are below 30 per 100,000 residents for three weeks. That’s about 100 new Covid infections per week in Marion County and about 24 in Polk.

Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist, said those exceptions reflect data showing children under 10 are less likely to get Covid, become seriously ill or transmit the virus to others.

Rural and remote school districts could also hold in-person with 30 new cases weekly per 100,000 residents.

And Sidelinger said the state will subtract large outbreaks at prisons and other facilities that aren’t contributing to the virus’ spread in the community when calculating total cases. While Marion County has seen a significant outbreak at Oregon State Penitentiary, few new cases from prisons have been added to the county total in recent weeks.

The Oregon Department of Education did not immediately say how the rules would be enforced or what penalties schools might face if they choose to open.

State officials did not release data showing which counties are meeting metrics currently, but a review of four weeks of cases suggests only Wheeler County will be able to hold school fully in-person if current trends continue.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.