SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With masks stretched across their faces, students and faculty returned to schools across Oregon on Monday after the holidays, but state officials worry an unprecedented wave of COVID-19 will force a return to online learning.
Oregon reported more than 9,700 new cases of COVID-19 from the holiday weekend on Monday and smashed a previous record for weekly coronavirus cases, with an average of about 2,400 new cases per day. The state also hit a single-day high for new cases on Thursday, with 3,534 confirmed or presumptive infections.
“Student access to in-person instruction is under serious threat,” the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority said Monday.
The highly contagious omicron variant has families worried as their kids return to school. In a Portland suburb, school nurses were overwhelmed with inquiries.
“Due to the high volume of calls and emails they are experiencing, please expect a delayed response of up to 24 hours,” the Lake Oswego School District told parents in an email.
The state officials suggested schools suspend extracurricular activities or ensure they follow safety protocols. They also warned that rapid transmission of the omicron variant is expected in indoor settings where people don’t wear masks and follow other safety protocols, like maintaining physical distances and washing hands.
Monday marked the first day of classes after the Christmas holidays, though some schools remained closed because of a severe winter storm. Teachers worried that if the virus spreads rapidly, online classes would have to resume. Teaching online during the 2020-21 school year was challenging for both educators and students.
“We know our students learn best in-person, where they have access to other on-site critical services,” the state education and health departments said.
According to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, a COVID-19 surge driven by the omicron variant is expected to peak at the end of January, with hospitalizations at about 1,650 people. Oregon hospitalizations peaked at 1,187 on Sept. 1 during the surge of infections from the delta variant.
The Oregon Health Authority also reported that 18.2% of COVID-19 tests administered over the long weekend were positive for the virus, the highest positivity rate seen in the state so far. Hospitalizations, however, hovered at 498 people, less than half the number at the previous peak. Eleven deaths were announced Monday. There are 60 adult intensive care unit beds available statewide.
Meanwhile, a statewide reading contest called the Oregon Battle of the Books announced it would hold its tournament online. The contest’s executive board called the decision painful but explained that the health of students and families is paramount and that, furthermore, venues to host the tournament are unable to take bookings due to COVID-19.
Schools may offer testing for the virus, and are about to increase that capacity with help from the state. The Oregon Health Authority announced last week that it has ordered 6 million COVID-19 rapid test kits, with each kit containing two tests. They will be distributed to local public health authorities and Native American tribes, agriculture workers, schools, health care workers and other sectors.
“We knew we had to be ready for future variants so we could continue to protect the most vulnerable in our communities while keeping our schools, businesses and communities open,” said Gov. Kate Brown.
News release from the Oregon Dept. of Education and the Oregon Health Authority.
School Health Advisory for Continuity of Instruction
Advisory in effect statewide January 3 – January 31, 2022
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) are partnering to prioritize the safety protocols needed to reliably return to full-time, in-person school for all students. We know our students learn best in-person, where they have access to other on-site critical services.
Today’s School Health Advisory is the most critical and urgent issued to date.
As Oregon fully experiences the impacts of the Omicron variant over the next several weeks, student access to in-person instruction is under serious threat. While early data indicate that the Omicron variant may result in less severe disease than previous variants, it is increasingly clear that the Omicron variant spreads much more quickly and easily than all previous variants.
- Layered mitigation safety protocols (including vaccinations, boosters, face coverings, physical distancing, ventilation, frequent handwashing) are more critical now than at any other time during this pandemic.
- Based on the emerging experience of other countries, states and school districts, we expect rapid transmission of the Omicron variant in indoor settings in which people do not adhere with purpose and intention to masking requirements and other layered mitigation safety protocols.
Oregon schools have worked hard to reopen their doors to in-person learning and are diligently using the Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in school settings. Thank you, educators!
Schools are managed settings. When administrators and staff in schools are trained and implement layered mitigation safety protocols fully, the risk of COVID-19 transmission can be lower than in general community settings without such protocols in place.
Current modeling from OHSU shows that Oregon will likely experience a significant COVID-19 surge, driven by the Omicron variant, beginning in January and continuing through February. This surge is likely to be much steeper than the Delta variant surge we have experienced. We expect impacts on workforce stability in schools, hospitals, and other sectors. Hospitals may be impacted even more severely than they were in the fall.
To maintain the continuity of instruction during school this year, OHA and ODE are issuing the following School Health Advisory, to remain in effect statewide January 3 – January 31, unless otherwise updated.
- If students or staff show COVID-19 symptoms or the school is aware they are a close contact, they must exclude the individual as per OAR 333-019-0010 (3) & (4). Schools may offer testing to the individual through OHA’s Diagnostic Testing Program. Refer to this 12-13-21 message for information on current 7-day quarantine and test to stay protocols.
- COVID-19 symptoms can be found on page 9 of the Planning for COVID-19 Scenarios in Schools A Toolkit for School Leaders and Local Public Health Authorities.
- Test to stay protocol allows unvaccinated individuals who were exposed to a COVID-19 positive case in a K-12 school setting to remain learning in-person when certain criteria are met.
- If a quarantine is called for, prioritize a shortened seven day quarantine option. This means that when a close contact remains symptom free and tests negative at 5-7 days after exposures, they may return to school and other activities on day 8.
- To reduce spread and the number of students and staff excluded from school due to contracting COVID-19 or quarantining due to close contact, each school should review and update their Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan (available on this webpage):
- When instruction resumes in January, schools should reinforce the importance of layered mitigation efforts. Plan to re-teach appropriate use of face coverings, reestablish consistent physical distancing practices, incorporate frequent handwashing, recheck ventilation systems, and attend to other layered health and safety measures.
- Schools should consider implementing additional layers of protection such as increased airflow and circulation, implementing free COVID-19 testing programs, retraining staff on all protocols, and educating staff, students and families about COVID-19 symptoms.
- To remain eligible for American Rescue Plan Act federal funds, school districts are required to updated their Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan (available on this webpage) by February 25. This is an important time to carefully review plans and make changes that will help keep students and staff safe and keep school doors open to in-person instruction. School districts will receive information on the process for updating their plans on January 4, 2022.
- Schools should work with health partners to offer vaccination clinics and encourage eligible students and staff to get their vaccinations and boosters. More information about vaccinations can be found at Get Vaccinated Oregon.
- Schools and other organizations should pause extracurricular activities or ensure they follow the same layered mitigation safety protocols practiced during the school day (use of face coverings, screening and diagnostic testing, encourage vaccination, frequent handwashing, etc.).
- If schools and other organizations proceed with extracurricular activities, especially as these activities move indoors and individuals are unmasked, they should expect rapid transmission of COVID-19 that will prevent students from participating in in-person learning due to isolation for those that contract COVID-19 and lengthy quarantines for those that come into close contact with infected individuals.
- This risk should be clearly communicated to families participating in these extracurricular activities.
- Schools should hold events (parent/family conferences, fundraisers, etc.) online, rather than in-person. If events are held in-person, make every effort to hold the events under covered areas outside, ensure all participants wear masks, and maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet between individuals from different households.
For families and community members:
We need your help to maintain in-person instruction for children across Oregon. When community spread increases, more COVID-19 is introduced in our schools and causes disruption of in-person learning due to quarantine and isolation. You can help:
- If your child has COVID-19 symptoms, do not send them to school. Seek a COVID-19 test. COVID-19 symptoms can be found on page 9 of the Planning for COVID-19 Scenarios in Schools A Toolkit for School Leaders and Local Public Health Authorities.
- Get vaccinated now if you’re not. Vaccination remains the best protection against serious illness from COVID-19 and reduces spread of the disease. Get Vaccinated Oregon.
- Get boosted if you’re not. If you’re eligible for a booster, make your appointment today. Boosters provide an extra layer of protection needed to slow spread of the omicron variant.
- Families with school-age children and educators should limit gatherings and non-essential activities with people from other households to the extent possible throughout January and February. Before getting together with family, friends and loved ones, ask if attendees have received their COVID-19 vaccinations, including boosters, and consider postponing visits if many attendees are not up to date with recommended doses. If you are visiting people from another household, you should wear a mask, maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet, and keep activities outdoors as much as possible.
CDC Updates to Quarantine & Isolation
You may be aware that the CDC made changes to the recommended quarantine and isolation guidance for exposed individuals. OHA officials are consulting with the CDC on what these changes mean for schools. More information will be forthcoming on the CDC’s changes. Thank you for tracking how CDC’s announcements impact our work in Oregon.
Future School Health Advisories
OHA and ODE will continue to issue School Health Advisories to identify additional steps families, schools, and/or communities can take to help keep our children safely learning in our schools. These advisories may be regional or statewide. The School Health Advisories name actions that individuals, families, schools, and/or communities can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and help schools stay open to in-person instruction.
Review these back-to-school COVID-19 safety tips for more information on how to keep everyone safe as students return to the classroom.
For previous OHA/ODE School Health Advisories and more information on how your school is planning for a safe return to full-time, in-person learning go to oregon.gov/readyschools.
Thank you for doing your part to ensure our children have consistent access to in-person learning.