Oregon schools are preparing for the 2022-23 school year starting in September, but with COVID-19 still a prevalent concern for many, districts must implement guidelines for how to keep students and staff safe.
The Oregon Department of Education requires school district and charter schools to submit a COVID-19 Management Plan by Aug. 26. Nearly all of the COVID-19 safety procedures are decisions made at the district level, and most districts will consult with local health authorities when creating their plans.
On Wednesday, ODE and the Oregon Health Authority reaffirmed that local entities will take the lead on health protocols during a news conference about the latest updates on COVID-19 before the school year begins next month.
“At this time we can we are leaving those decisions to those local school leaders who can base their decisions on what’s happening in individual classrooms, grade levels, schools across the district,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, health officer and state epidemiologist at OHA, during the conference. “(The local districts) know the data. They know the resources that they have. They know the improvements they’ve made in ventilation. They know their vaccination rates or can look at vaccination rates in their community and other things that they can use to make those decisions.”
Colt Gill, director of ODE, said he is confident in local school leaders and their decision-making. He added that in 2021-22, apart from a few exceptions, schools remained open throughout the academic year. The No. 1 goal is to continue offering equitable opportunities for students to remain in-person at school, he said.
“Certainly, if the virus evolves, and we see variants that are causing more significant disease … we will discuss what are options,” Sidelinger said. “Do we need to look at more measures? Do we need to recommend something more strongly, or do we need to consider statewide actions? Right now, we have nothing on the horizon — no indications that we’re going to see the virus mutate in a way that would cause us to do that.”
However, with the new school year comes a great risk for virus spread.
“I know firsthand that schools are critical to our children’s social and emotional well-being and know they also create opportunities for viruses and illnesses to spread,” Sidelinger said.
Sidelinger encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated if they can and “as soon as possible” to prepare for the start of classes.
Sidelinger also mentioned monkeypox during Wednesday’s press conference. OHA has confirmed 116 cases in the state. He said the likelihood of spread of the disease in a school setting is low, but anyone who might be experiencing symptoms of monkeypox is advised to stay home and quarantine.
He advised schools to plan ahead for how to support students and staff who will experience prolonged times isolating at home after being diagnosed with monkeypox.
What will schools have to incorporate into the guidance?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated COVID-19 guidance Aug. 11, but OHA confirmed that much of the guidance already has been in place in Oregon since March. For example, OHA has not recommended quarantine after an exposure without a positive test result for the general population or in K-12 settings since March. However, isolation recommendations and school exclusion requirements for individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 are still in place. OHA and ODE will continue to review updated CDC guidance to identify areas where state specific guidance may need to change.
ODE no longer requires indoor masking or distancing, but schools may implement measures to require masking if they deem it necessary.
Districts have to outline three states of COVID-19 guidance:
- Baseline (mitigation measures that are present all of the time);
- High COVID-19 transmission within the community or a specific school;
- Gradual return for a transition from increased measures to the a potentially enhanced baseline.
The management plans falls in line with the CDC’s suggestion that all school districts set infectious disease prevention strategies. These sorts of guidelines could be part of the “new normal” that comes with a post-pandemic world.
Both ODE and the CDC recommend “layered” health and safety measures, such as getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings and improved airflow and circulation.
Eugene, Bethel and Springfield plans regarding mask wearing, hygiene
Broadly, Eugene School District 4J, Bethel School District and Springfield Public Schools all have optional mask-wearing. Additionally, Bethel still requires masking for staff in health care settings and settings where there are students with increased health needs.
The CDC, ODE and Oregon Health Authority still “strongly recommend” masks in school settings when COVID-19 cases are high in the surrounding community to reduce the potential time out of school and more learning loss.
4J, Bethel and SPS all have an emphasis on hygiene as outlined in their most recent plans — frequent hand-washing, disinfecting, cleaning and covering mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing. The districts also require staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in accordance with a state mandate put in place in August 2021.
4J offers on-site diagnostic testing and take-home testing are available to students and staff under certain circumstances. 4J encourages all staff and students to enroll in voluntary weekly screening testing through OHA. There are no state requirements for student vaccinations. Although the districts do offer free COVID-19 vaccination clinics, they do not ask for students’ vaccine status.
The districts recommend if a student or staff member is sick, they should not come to school and generally should not return to school until they’ve been fever-free for 72 hours.
Districts still have until Aug. 26 to submit their plans to the state, so these plans are subject to change. 4J and SPS both confirmed they are still finalizing plans to send.
Mental health, equity part of local schools’ plans
Mental health supports and equity are a big focus of the management plans as well. Bethel and 4J plans mention social emotional learning and staff training for mental health services.
ODE requires each district to outline how they intend to ensure equity in its new policies. For example, Bethel offers “communication shared with families in a variety of platforms to meet their needs” for mental and physical health resources to ensure equitable outreach.
Some districts note information or resources translated to Spanish. 4J specifically mentions BIPOC and LGBTQ+ staff trainings and safe spaces.
First days of school
- Bethel’s first days are Sept. 6 for K-8 and Sept. 7 for high school.
- Eugene 4J’s first days are Sept. 7 for elementary, sixth grade and ninth to 12th grades; and Sept. 8 for seventh and eighth grades. Sept. 6 is ninth-grade orientation day.
- Springfield’s first days are Sept. 7 for half of kindergarteners, elementary, and sixth and ninth grades; and Sept. 8 for half of kindergarteners, seventh and eighth grades and 10th-12th grades. (No school for kindergarten on Sept. 9.)
Miranda Cyr reports on education for The Register-Guard. You can contact her at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @mirandabcyr.