Gov. Kate Brown announces new state restrictions in a news conference in Portland on Thursday, March 12. (Jonathan House/Pamplin Media)
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This article was updated to include more information from Salem-Keizer.
Most Salem students wouldn’t see the inside of a classroom until April if current rates of coronavirus transmission continue - and Gov. Kate Brown said she’ll consider closing bars and restaurants if Oregonians can’t reduce the virus’ spread by following existing orders in the coming weeks.
Brown called on business owners, local public health agencies and county elected officials to “step up” by enforcing existing rules about social gatherings, modeling mask wearing and inspecting businesses more frequently.
“We need to see a much more rapid decline in case numbers. And we need to see it quickly,” Brown said in a news conference Friday.
Oregon has among the lowest fatality rates from the virus of any U.S. state, and Brown said Oregonians have worked hard to flatten the curve. The state hasn't seen a spike in new cases - it's holding steady at about 300 people infected daily.
But health officials said Friday that’s not enough to reopen schools. Currently, the average Oregonian diagnosed with Covid infects one other person, keeping new cases flat. If Oregonians could further reduce that rate of infection, schools could open in about six weeks, said Brown.
Brown’s reopening guidelines for schools call for fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 county residents in a week with exceptions for rural, remote and small districts. Marion County in the past week reported 335 residents infected with Covid - ten times the number needed to reopen schools. Polk County is closer to meeting targets, but Salem-Keizer School District leaders have said they’ll look at Marion County's numbers to guide reopening decisions since many school employees cross the bridge to or from west Salem to go to work.
Students in kindergarten through third grade can resume class if a county reports no more than 30 new cases weekly per 100,000 residents, but Marion County still isn’t close.
The percentage of positive tests in the county also needs to be below 5% - a number Marion County has not met since the pandemic began in March.
Kraig Sproles, assistant superintendent for Salem-Keizer, said the county's trend was "a little depressing" and echoed Brown's hope that citizens would work together to lower transmission rates.
"Our biggest concern from the get-go has been how difficult it is for our youngest learners to access distance learning successfully," he said.
Brown said she’s reluctant to impose business shutdowns again.
“Closing businesses across the state...works to control the virus. But the economic cost is extraordinary. Behind every business closure are real people who have lost jobs and lost income,” Brown said.
Reopening K-12 schools in-person remains her priority, she said.
“I know the parents and the grandparents and the guardians out there all agree with me on that one,” she said.
Some local students will be back in classrooms sooner. Regardless of the virus’ spread locally, Oregon schools may bring students in in groups of 10 or fewer to meet academic needs that can’t be met remotely, so long as the virus isn’t spreading within the school.
Those small groups could include special education services like speech therapy, career technical courses like welding, and classes for students learning English.
Salem-Keizer leaders have said they plan to hold in-person small groups but haven’t yet detailed what those sessions will look like or which students will be included.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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