No mask requirements, contact tracing for Covid as Salem schools resume

Salem’s 40,000 public school students will be heading back to class the same way they have the last three years – under the cloud of a lingering pandemic. But this year, the state has backed away and generally left local districts to determine how to keep students safe and healthy. 

When classes resume on Sept. 7, schools in the Salem-Keizer School District will still monitor Covid infections and report outbreaks – where a significant number of students in a classroom or athletic team are sick – to families. But Covid will generally be treated like other infectious diseases, with no quarantines required for those exposed to the virus and no masks required at schools, said district spokesman Aaron Harada.

Last Wednesday, Department of Education Director Colt Gill said during a press conference that almost all healthy and safety procedures would be left to local districts other than statewide rules like vaccinations for school employees and volunteers, which remain in effect.

“As a pediatrician and now as the state health officer, I know first hand that schools are critical to our children’s social and emotional well-being,” state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said at the Aug. 17 press conference. “Getting children vaccinated against Covid-19 is an easy and safe way to help protect your whole family.”  

Salem Keizer Public School spokeswoman Emily Hicks said Aug. 24 that information about the district’s protocols could be found online and that the district would work collaboratively with the Oregon Department of Education and local public health agencies in the case of a communicable disease outbreak like Covid or monkeypox. 

On Aug. 17, the state reported its first pediatric case of monkeypox. 

According to the district’s website, Marion and Polk County community case rate of Covid will be monitored during the upcoming school year. 

“When one of our counties moves to high risk, the district will highly recommend wearing a face covering for all individuals especially when indoors or in crowded settings,” the policy states.

During low or medium risk in the counties, the district will also recommend wearing a face mask. 

Marion County is currently under high risk and Polk is moderate risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

If a person in the district tests positive, the district will work with the local public health authority to ensure the person follows instructions for isolation, the district’s website states. That isolation would allow a return on day six. Exposure to Covid will no longer require quarantine – only positive cases must quarantine. 

Classroom notifications will occur for outbreaks, Harada said. The threshold for an outbreak varies, but is generally when student absence rates due to illness rise above normal levels — 20% in a classroom or other group, or 30% in a school.

Otherwise, students and families won’t be notified if someone in their class, club or sports team tests positive for Covid, Harada said.

The district website also keeps track of Covid cases by school and separates cases by staff and students.

Contact reporter Caitlyn May at [email protected].

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!

Caitlyn May served as a journalist for nearly a decade in Nevada and in Linn Lane counties in Oregon with a focus on rural stories and long-form journalism. A graduate of both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, she currently serves as an elementary school teacher but returns to journalism now and then, remaining a dedicated supporter of the Fourth Estate.