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Camp outbreaks raise questions about schools

Jackson County commissioners say Gov. Kate Brown’s requirements for reopening schools for in-person instruction are unattainable. Given the county’s current trajectory of COVID-19 infections, they are probably right. Given new reports of outbreaks among children at summer camps in Oregon and elsewhere in the country, the governor is probably right to insist on those strict standards.

We say “probably” because no one knows with absolute certainty what number of new cases will ensure the greatest safety for children and school staff. Complaining that the standards are too strict suggests that they should be eased. By how much? For how long? What is an acceptable number of COVID-19 cases in our schools?

At a Georgia summer camp, The Washington Post noted in an editorial reprinted here Tuesday, 260 campers tested positive for the novel coronavirus out of 344 test results available. Despite assertions from some advocates for reopening schools, the cases included younger children: 51% of those ages 6-10 tested positive, along with 44% of those 11-17 and 33% of those 18-21.

At Trout Creek Bible Camp near Corbett, Oregon, just east of the Portland area, 25 campers and staff members tested positive last month, all younger than 20.

Ordinarily an overnight camp, Trout Creek operated as a day camp this summer because of a state ban on sleepaway camps. Camp operators reduced the number of campers from 325 a week in normal years to no more than 150 this year, and followed all requirements of the Oregon Health Authority: daily temperature checks, frequent hand washing, hand sanitizer stations, and dividing campers into groups of 10 or fewer who didn’t mingle with other groups. Most activities were held outdoors, where health officials say transmission is less likely.

Masks were not required. State rules actually said masks could not be required of children at camps until the rules changed July 24 — three days before Trout Creek had closed voluntarily.

All of this raises serious questions about the wisdom of trying to reopen schools this fall. The camp operators did everything they were supposed to do, and still children and staff were infected.

The true number of cases may actually be higher than 25. Multnomah County health officials did not require blanket testing of those without symptoms, reasoning that even those testing negative would be told to quarantine for 14 days anyway.

In Jackson County, school districts that had been considering reopening some schools under careful restrictions have scrapped those plans after Brown announced the tough new standards for fourth- through 12th-grade students to achieve in-person learning: no more than 10 new cases per 100,000 population in the county for three weeks running, a benchmark this county has not met since June.

While it is true that children tend to suffer mild symptoms or none at all compared with adults, they are not immune. And although they may be less likely to transmit the virus to family members and others, even that is not certain.

No one is happy with the situation, least of all working parents who are wondering how to cope with at-home distance learning. But the alternative is risking their children contracting an unpredictable virus.