First grade students at Liberty Elementary School in Salem. Under new state recommendations, students and families wouldn't be notified if they sit next to someone in class who's diagnosed with Covid. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Schools in Oregon no longer have to notify students or teachers that they sat next to someone infected with Covid in class or on the bus, so long as both parties were wearing masks.

The Friday announcement from the Oregon Health Authority is intended to reduce the amount of work school nurses and public health officials have to undertake when someone at school is diagnosed with Covid. School districts and local public health agencies have struggled to keep up with the volume of new Covid infections during the omicron surge.

Health officials called the change a “common sense” approach to contact tracing, ”that will allow schools to focus resources on identifying high-risk, indoor, unmasked exposures most likely to result in transmission,” the announcement said.

The agency will release specific guidance “in the coming days” but said Friday the changes take effect immediately.

The new state recommendations tell school districts to focus their contact tracing on school breakfast and lunch, when students remove masks to eat, and on classes or activities where masks are not worn, like band or after-school sports.

“The new recommendations are based on accumulated evidence that layered mitigation efforts in K-12 schools have worked well to minimize transmission and that the vast majority of transmission has occurred following indoor unmasked contact,” the announcement said.

Oregon Department of Education officials also urged school districts to keep students in the same small groups during lunch if they’re not already doing so to minimize the number of people potentially exposed to Covid during the school day.

The Salem-Keizer School District maintains its own health authority to identify Covid infections among students and school employees and trace who those people were in contact with at schools.

The district will adopt the new state recommendations, spokesman Aaron Harada said Friday.

A team of about 30 district employees, most of them school nurses, currently track and trace Covid infections among about 45,000 district students and employees, in addition to their other responsibilities, Harada said.

“They still need to be out at schools giving insulin shots and processing all the positive cases,” he said.

Harada said the district in most cases will now notify parents or guardians that their student was exposed to Covid at school via email or text, rather than an individual phone call from a school nurse, because of the time involved.

High rates of illness among students have staff have challenged district operations since winter break. Superintendent Christy Perry canceled all classes Friday because of staffing shortages.

The district records if someone had Covid while inside a school building, but otherwise doesn't track how many students and employees are out due to Covid infection or exposure.

Student absences have been high all week, with just 74% of the district’s 39,000 students attending classes Thursday, according to a district data dashboard, though the data doesn’t show the reasons for student absence.

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

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