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State to reevaluate COVID-19 metrics

During a press conference last week that focused on the state’s increased COVID-19 testing capacity, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown mentioned that “health experts” and school administrators will be reevaluating the metrics that determine which Oregon schools may reopen, but Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion stressed that science will be the driving force behind any potential loosening of the restrictions.

After announcing that the state will likely have access to roughly 80,000 rapid antigen tests per week, Brown said, “I wish I could tell you that 80,000 new tests per week would help us open our schools. But it won’t on its own. Our health experts together with school administrators will be reevaluating our school metrics in the coming weeks and will have an update for you on that soon.”

Brown’s comment may have raised the hopes of parents in favor of reopening schools, such as those who attended a rally Oct. 5 in front of the Jackson County Courthouse, but the standards would likely have to be changed considerably to impact local schools.

Currently, in order for students in kindergarten through third grade to be allowed back in school full-time, Jackson County must have 66 or fewer COVID-19 cases per week and a coronavirus test positivity rate of 5% or less in both the county and the state, and all those benchmarks must be met for three consecutive weeks. For students in fourth grade and up to head back to school, the test positivity standard is the same but the number of new cases goal is much stricter — no more than 22 new cases per week allowed for three consecutive weeks.

Jackson County falls well short in each of those benchmarks. It has averaged 104.75 cases per week, with a high of 135 and a low of 72, over the previous eight weeks with a test positivity rate that’s dropped below 5.1% only once since the week that began Aug. 2.

Pressed on when the bar might be lowered to allow for more schools to open, Brown spoke only in broad terms.

“We’re still exploring this issue, but I think it’s fair to say that the statewide metric, frankly, is quite challenging for communities around the state, and my top priority is to make sure that we get our kids back into school safely,” she said. “We want to make sure that we can protect our kids, our teachers and our professional staff in our schools as well. We will be evaluating these metrics over the next couple of weeks. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to continue our conversations with superintendents across the state, with teachers as well, and with parents as well.

“As you well know, metro area Portland looks very different than, frankly, Bend, and that looks very different than Ontario. So we have a great variety of both geographic density and cultural differences across the state. We want to work to keep people safe — our students, our teachers and our professional staff, and get our kids back into school as quickly as possible.”

Champion said that health experts from the Oregon Health Authority have been analyzing the results from other school districts across the country to try to get a handle on how a wide range of novel coronavirus policies are impacting the spread of the virus. The goal, Champion said, has always been safety, which is why the health experts are leading the way.

“There’s certainly not been a big call about what’s everybody’s opinion,” Champion said. “That’s not how we’ve done this at any step, nor should we. The science should lead our steps, not our opinions. We know, for example, that if we’re going to get back, regardless of what the metrics are, Jackson County has to have better numbers, and that means wearing masks and being aware that at large gatherings, we need to wear masks at those. We need to not be hanging out for long periods of time, as difficult as that is, because we have got to get to green in the Medford School District.”

Superintendents across the state meet over the phone once a month with members of the Oregon Department of Education, Champion said.

Pat Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, shed some light on which potential changes may be in store when he spoke about the metrics during Brown’s press conference. Allen zeroed in on the statewide positivity requirement that may be a sticking point for some districts, and could eventually trip up Jackson County schools, too, should numbers here begin to decline.

“I think we’ve got enough experience now to be able to look at the utility of that metric as an indicator of a broad level of coronavirus in the community generally and ask whether that statewide metric is indicative enough of disease that it should override local metrics around numbers of cases and local positivity,” Allen said. “We’ll be looking at all the metrics, but I think that’s an example of the kind of thing we’ll be evaluating.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.