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No changes likely for Jackson County schools after state eases reopening metrics

Get comfortable Jackson County, because as far as school goes, winter could look an awful lot like fall.

Oregon officials announced changes Friday that could open classrooms to more than 100,000 K-12 students in the coming weeks but will have almost no immediate impact in Jackson County, where COVID-19 cases are surging well beyond even the new, looser metrics.

Under the new metrics, released Friday morning by the Oregon Department of Education just before a press conference by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, counties with fewer than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate lower than 5% over 14 straight days — a tweak from the previous method of requiring metrics to be met each week for three consecutive weeks — are eligible for on-site learning, while 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of 5% to 8% places a county in a hybrid of on-site and comprehensive distance learning.

Counties that see 100 to 200 cases and a test positivity rate of 8% to 10% are in the new “transition” column of the four-tier color-coded model, which also allows for only limited on-site instruction. Also, the state eliminated the statewide positivity rate from each county’s reopening requirements. The new metrics were effective immediately so that schools that meet the standards could potentially open as early as Monday.

“I want to be really clear with all of you that we are making adjustments to the metrics based on our best judgments of science,” Brown said. “They are not radical shifts. Not every school district across the state will suddenly be able to meet these metrics and reopen today. In fact, the vast majority of our students will not be able to return to class. However, close to 130,000 students will potentially be able to return to in-person instruction with these metrics, and that’s a really good thing.”

Oregon has 600,000 public school students.

After the press conference, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill reiterated that the new metrics, like the previous standards, apply to the state’s private schools, too. Also, ODE is advising districts that can restart full on-site instruction to begin by first phasing in K-3 students before expanding to K-6 on up.

The new metrics, designed to pave the way for more students to get back to in-person instruction, would barely cause a ripple locally if not for an increase in the cohort size from 10 to 20 students for limited in-person learning, which will continue in the Medford School District. Full on-site learning in Medford, Ashland, Phoenix-Talent, Eagle Point and Central Point school districts will have to wait, however, because COVID-19 cases in Jackson County have increased sharply the last three weeks and skyrocketed the past few days, with single-day records of 54 recorded Thursday and 69 Friday.

Last week, Jackson County had 81.34 cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 7.9%. This week, even before today’s case count, the county was 98.51 cases per 100,000. The test positivity rate may prove to be the toughest hurdle to clear for Jackson County, which hasn’t seen that number dip below 5% since the week that began Aug. 30.

Heading into Halloween weekend, Jackson County’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction, with 135 cases during the week that began Oct. 11, 180 last week and so far 218 this week.

“For those districts that cannot yet return to in-person instruction, the metrics will serve as a guidepost for where we need to get to so we can return our children to the classroom in a safe manner,” Brown said. “This is a time for each of us to take a deep breath and reflect on the steps each of us need to take to keep ourselves safe, our family safe and our community safe. The bottom line is that we have to turn the tide and reduce the transmission increases we are seeing in most parts of the state to be able to safely reopen schools to in-person instruction. In order to do that we are going to be ramping up testing and continuing to focus on contact tracing and supportive isolation. We will be launching another significant public education campaign focused on the main culprit of transmission: informal social gatherings.”

Prior to Friday’s changes, schools couldn’t open for in-person learning unless the county in which it is based had 10 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days for three consecutive weeks. County and test positivity rates also had to be 5% or less for three consecutive weeks.

Gill said the changes go far beyond grammar and arithmetic.

“We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with more than access to an equitable education,” he said. “Schools are a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services.”

The state also announced a new hotline for concerned citizens who believe a school is not adhering to safety standards regarding face coverings and social distancing. Those who believe a school is not in compliance with the safety requirements can file a named or anonymous complaint by calling 1-833-604-0884 or by visiting https://osha.oregon.gov/workers/pages/index.aspx.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Abraham Lincoln Elementary school students ride in a trailer during a halloween parade Friday afternoon in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Abraham Lincoln Elementary school staff wave to students during a halloween parade Friday afternoon in Medford.