James Gough, an incoming kindergartner at Kalapuya Elementary School, works on an assessment test to gauge his alphabet comprehension on Thursday, September 17. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
With tens of thousands of Oregon kids attending class in-person, the state has so far seen 32 cases of the virus tied to K-12 schools with none in Marion or Polk counties, according to new state data released this week.
The data offer an early glimpse at how the partial reopening of some Oregon schools is going as Gov. Kate Brown said this week she would review the metrics schools must meet to offer in-person classes.
As of Sept. 27, just 229 of Oregon’s 1,322 schools were offering regular in-person classes, representing about 28,000 of the state’s nearly 600,000 students, according to a report from the Oregon Department of Education.
To open, schools must be located in a county with fewer than 10 new Covid cases weekly per 100,000 residents - about 34 cases per week for Marion County - and have fewer than 5% of tests for the virus come back positive over a three-week period. Small and rural schools can also reopen under exemptions if the total number of Covid cases in the community is low.
Open schools must still meet state health rules which limit classroom and school bus capacity, and generally require masks be worn inside the school building. Most are offering “hybrid” classes, meaning students spend part of the week at school and part of the week learning online from home.
Four in 10 of those students attend a school that is only open for kindergarten through third grade. State metrics allow schools to open for those students even if they don’t clear the bar for offering classes to everyone because younger children are thought to be less susceptible to the virus and because teaching young kids online is especially challenging.
In addition, about 15,000 students spent some time in a school building last week despite attending schools that aren’t cleared to reopen for regular classes. Oregon schools can bring kids into buildings in small groups to meet educational goals that can’t be done online, like special education assessments.
Fourteen schools have reported at least one case of the virus to the Oregon Health Authority, with a total of nine students and 23 school employees or volunteers known to have Covid statewide.
Twelve of those cases are in the Nyssa School District in Malheur County, where schools are not open for regular instruction but are bringing kids into buildings in small groups. The largest Covid outbreak at a school in Oregon is at Nyssa High School, which so far has tallied one student and five employees or volunteers with the virus.
Multiple cases in a single school doesn't necessarily mean students, staff and volunteers that have contracted Covid were in contact with one another. Schools are required to keep students in groups that don't mix during a school day, and the OHA data doesn't indicate whether cases are tied to a single or multiple group, or whether the people affected had contact inside the school.
It can take up to two weeks for someone infected with the virus to begin showing symptoms, so the tally of known cases is likely to grow. The data so far shows fewer than one-tenth of one percent of Oregon kids attending in-person school have tested positive.
Health authorities cautioned it’s still too early to draw broad conclusions about how the virus might spread in schools.
“What we’ve seen is pretty limited, very limited number of cases as we might expect due to those restrictions,” said Dr. Tom Jeanne, a health officer with Oregon Health Authority, in a news conference Thursday morning.
Jeanne said health authorities were reviewing the metrics to “see if we can get a few more kids in schools without significantly increasing our cases,” but declined to offer specifics. He said state officials are proceeding cautiously so schools don’t reopen only to have to immediately close again because of a Covid outbreak.
Salem-Keizer schools remain closed, with just a handful of students - 28 last week - coming into school buildings for the brief sessions allowed under the state’s current rules.
District spokesman Aaron Harada said that number would likely increase in coming weeks as schools bring students in for special education assessments, English tests for non-native speakers and work on a building site for students in a residential construction program.
Superintendent Christy Perry said at the start of the year that Salem-Keizer schools would remain all-online through at least early November, even if Marion County met the requirements to reopen.
The county remains far from those targets, reporting about seven times the number of new Covid infections allowed for schools to reopen. Earlier this week, Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, announced they would stick with all-online classes through at least the end of January 2021.
Salem-Keizer spokeswoman Sylvia McDaniel said Perry would make an announcement about district plans next week.
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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.