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New state health metrics set Medford schools back

The ability of local schools to reopen this fall will depend on whether Jackson County and the state both manage to meet key metrics for declining COVID-19 spread, according to new guidance from the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority.

“Overall, these requirements align with the recommendations from both public health experts and educators,” said Gov. Kate Brown Tuesday in a press conference announcing the new metrics.

The state agencies will require the county or counties encompassed in a school district to see low infection rates and low positivity rates in testing before their plans to reopen campuses will be approved. Failure to meet those standards will mean that only distance learning will be allowed as an option to students.

Hybrid models that include both in-person and off-campus learning, which several Jackson County school districts have favored in their initial plans, are also off the table if the county and state health metrics are not met.

Bret Champion, superintendent of Medford schools, said the new guidance sends the school district “not back to square one, but square 1.5.”

The school district sent notice to families Tuesday evening that it would switch to all virtual learning for students in grades four through 12, instead of going with the hybrid model officials had originally been aiming for.

“It changes everything,” he said.

In addition, Oregon's youngest students will be able to return under less-strict metrics, state officials said. In the case of children in kindergarten through third grade, officials expect school districts to try to offer in-person options “to the extent possible,” according to the new guidance.

Similarly, remote and rural public and private schools with 100 or fewer students have higher thresholds for weekly case rates before they would be required to shift back to comprehensive distance learning.

“Oregon public health officials have developed transparent, evidence-based metrics to help school boards and school districts make local decisions based on local conditions to determine how they can safely reopen school to in-person instruction,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s chief epidemiologist.

Before schools will be approved for reopening to older elementary, middle and high school students, their counties must see a weekly new case rate at or below 10 per 100,000 residents for three straight weeks. In addition, the weekly test positivity rate in the county must remain at or below 5% for three weeks in a row.

The state of Oregon as a whole must also see 5% or less of tests returning positive each week for three straight weeks for any districts to reopen.

Champion said he was surprised to find that the weekly data that will now be used as a benchmark wasn’t readily available in a dashboard, leaving schools no way to begin gauging their local trends in test positivity or weekly case rates.

“We appreciate an eye for safety,” he said. “We, too, want to ensure the safety of our students, staff and community. But the lack of available data to us is incredibly frustrating.”

After the press conference, OHA published a PDF document that included information about the weekly metrics per county, with the most recent data reported July 19.

Officials based their decision to allow more lax thresholds for younger students to return to an in-person setting on research that indicates younger students are less likely to contract the virus, less likely to become severely ill, and they spread the virus less than older students and adults.

But counties still have to meet standards for young students to come back to the classroom. If COVID-19 is known to be spreading among the school community, for example, those in-person options are off the table.

The case rate in the county also cannot be at or over 30 new cases per 100,000 in the preceding seven days for three weeks straight.

“We need to be cautious so that schools don’t become places where the virus spreads,” Brown said.

Jackson County, which could see up to 64 cases per week before surpassing that metric, has stayed underneath it for most of the summer, according to data from Jackson County Public Health. But the department’s weekly data only goes up to July 6, and a steeper rise in cases in the past week had pushed the county out of compliance with the metric as of Tuesday, according to a data analysis by Oregon’s education reporters.

It’s not yet immediately clear how the new requirements will impact other local district plans for reopening. While Oregon’s largest school districts announced subsequent delays in their reopening plans until November or later, most Jackson County districts didn’t rush to make announcements.

Medford School District has previously released a plan to bring students in kindergarten through sixth grade back into the classroom full-time, with a hybrid on-site/distance model for middle and high school students. Champion said those plans were “turned upside down” by the new guidance.

“One of our core values is simplicity, and it’s really not simple right now,” he said. “We’re hoping the state does share some sort of way to see the metrics so they make some sense for folks.”

Education reporters from across Oregon instead collaborated to analyze the most recent weekly COVID-19 case data per county to determine which, if any, counties met the requirements to reopen.

As of July 28, only Wheeler County, which has seen no coronavirus cases yet, has seen a low enough rate to meet the state standards for reopening schools.

But as long as the state continues to see tests come back positive at a rate higher than 5%, districts may not be able to reopen. OHA reported the state positivity rate as of June 19 was 5.1%.

“We’re trending back down,” Sidelinger said. “I think that test positivity rate, if things continue the way they are, will continue to set our local communities up for successful reopening. When you look at several counties, their test positivity rates meet that metric or are going toward that metric.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune File photo. Medford Schools Superintendent Bret Champion and Communications Specialist Natalie Hurd talk to the press in March 2020 about the impacts of COVID-19 on schools.