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New state school reopening rules make it significantly easier to return to classes

New Oregon school reopening metrics, unveiled Friday morning, will take effect immediately and will allow close to 130,000 students statewide to return to classrooms, after most schools being closed to in-person learning since March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Arguably the biggest changes in the new metrics are how COVID-19 cases are counted — counties must meet a benchmark over a two-week average, rather than meet it for three weeks in a row — and much higher case count and test-positivity benchmarks. The more lenient rules for elementary students also now include all elementary students, not just those in grades K-3.

To be in the "green zone" and bring back all K-12 students, a county must now have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week average — or less than 30 total cases over that two-week span for small-population counties — and a county test positivity rate of 5%.

This is a significantly easier benchmark to meet than the old metrics — counties previously had to have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents and a 5% or lower positivity rate to welcome back all students. It's also more lenient for the old benchmark for bringing back K-3 students, which was 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents.

The new metrics' "yellow zone" — where elementary can be taught in-person or hybrid, but the state recommends older students stay home — is a county case rate between 50 and 99.9 cases per 100,000 residents and a county test positivity rate between 5% and 7.9%. Small counties can have between 30 and 44 total cases in a two-week period.

Counties reach the "orange" transitional zone if they have between 100 and 200 cases per 100,000 residents and a county test positivity rate between 8% and 10%. Small counties can have between 45 and 60 total cases.

If a county in the orange zone has upward-trending COVID-19 numbers, the school district and local health authority must decide whether or not students should return to distance learning. If the county's COVID-19 numbers are trending downward, all students must stay in distance learning until a county reaches the yellow zone.

Finally, in the "red zone" — when a county has more than 200 cases per 100,000 residents or more than 60 total cases for small counties, along with a test positivity rate of more than 10% — distance learning is mandatory.

There is an exception to the metrics for rural schools with fewer than 75 students that are located more than 25 miles from a town of at least 3,000 residents. Those schools can reopen if their attendance area, as well as the closest city where many families shop and work, have no COVID-19 community spread.

Any school district currently teaching students in-person that is currently in the red zone must transition all students back to distance learning by Jan. 4, 2021.

Gov. Kate Brown's office sent the media a list of counties that were eligible, partly eligible and not eligible to re-open schools, and this list contradicts with the actual COVID-19 numbers and the new metrics.

A spokesperson from the Oregon Department of Education told The Bulletin Friday morning that state officials are looking into these contradictions.

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