First grade teacher Adelyn Rowland works with Gracie Sligh during the first day back to school at Liberty Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon students exposed to Covid in the classroom will have the option to remain at school provided they test negative for the virus, state health and education officials announced Tuesday. They would still face quarantine if they were exposed to the coronavirus outside of school.

The program, known as “test to stay,” is intended to minimize the amount of school that students miss due to classmates with Covid. Such mandatory quarantining can last up to two weeks following an exposure.

“This will significantly reduce the impact of lost instructional time due to quarantines,” said Colt Gill, the state’s top education official, during the news conference.

But it’s not yet clear when the option will be available to families in Salem - and it only applies to students exposed to Covid at school, not in other settings.

In the Salem-Keizer School District, the policy would affect students not vaccinated against Covid who are identified as a close contact of someone with the virus at school. Currently, the district consults with local public health agencies to determine how long students need to quarantine at home following an exposure.

That period is typically 10 calendar days, though the district is expecting new state guidelines soon, spokesperson Aaron Harada said.

Last week, the district recorded 45 students with Covid who had been attending school, according to a district dashboard, not including preschool programs. Another 124 students were identified as being in close contact with an infected individual.

Harada said he didn’t have data about how many of those students were required to quarantine. But a majority of students exposed to Covid, 72, were elementary school students, according to the dashboard. Kids 11 and under only recently became eligible for Covid vaccination and haven’t had time to get fully vaccinated yet.

Salem schools currently offer rapid Covid tests to students with symptoms of illness, Harada said. District nurses and other officials are meeting early next week to review the new test-to-stay guidelines and consider next steps.

Under the guidelines state officials outlined Tuesday, unvaccinated students exposed to Covid at school would take a rapid test for the coronavirus twice - once as soon as they’re identified as a close contact, and once five to seven days later. Tests will be free of charge to students.

Provided they don’t show symptoms of illness and test negative, they’ll be allowed to remain in class.

“Doing tests twice during that weeklong period should pick up the vast majority of students who are exposed,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist.

The student would be under a “modified quarantine,” according to guidelines from the Oregon Department of Education. They would still be asked to quarantine at home with the exception of attending school and school extracurricular activities, Gill said.

Students in Oregon generally aren't required to wear masks while actively playing sports or performing, such as in a school play. Gill said students under the modified quarantine would have to be masked during such activities.

Students and families aren't required to participate and could choose to quarantine and miss class rather than be tested.

“We’ve consistently pressed our state leaders for responsible steps that protect the public health while keeping more students in class,” said Maureen Wolf, president of the Oregon School Boards Association, in a statement. “We support these moves and will continue to advocate for extensions of local control for our members.”

The test-to-stay guidelines only apply to exposure at schools. State health officials said that’s because the risk of contracting Covid at school is already lower due to masking rules and other mitigation in place.

“Test to stay may not be used following extracurricular exposures because masking in these settings is optional and the risk of transmission within the cohort is greater. Similarly, test to stay may not be used following community or in-home exposures,” the health authority said in a Tuesday news release.

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

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