With COVID-19 cases rising, Oregon education officials stress need for safety protocols, monitoring absences

COVID-19 cases are rising in Oregon, and state education officials are hoping to keep cases from disrupting school operations with a new health advisory shared Friday.

Students at Prescott Elementary in Northeast Portland make their way to their classes on Feb. 8, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“When school communities have illness rates that result in high numbers of staff and student absences, they should lean into the protection offered by layered mitigation safety protocols,” said a school health advisory from Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill.

ODE said districts and schools should recommend face coverings before shifting to remote school in response to increasing COVID cases.

The statewide announcement comes as Multnomah County Public Health officials urged residents earlier this week to wear masks indoors until cases and hospitalizations fall again.

COVID-19 Community Levels, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data point based on COVID-19 hospitalization data, are listed as “medium” in six counties: Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Columbia, Benton, and Deschutes.

All other Oregon counties have “low” COVID-19 community levels.

According to OHA data, pediatric COVID-19 cases have been increasing since the middle of March, similar to cases statewide. Hospitalizations remain low but are on the rise. Health officials have called it “a mild virus” in most cases.

The advisory also recommends that schools monitor for high absentee rates and notify their local public health authority if absences reach a certain level, or if they see an ”unusual spread of disease.”

ODE said school leaders should tell their county health officials if absences exceed certain benchmarks, such as if absences reach 30% or more, with at least 10 students or staff absent at the school level, and if classroom absences reach 20% or more, with at least 3 students or staff absent.

“Some public health recommendations may include universal use of face coverings while an outbreak is active, utilizing the enhanced testing program within cohorts, or other infection prevention and control measures,” according to the advisory.

Prescott Principal Nichole Watson reminds students to keep their mask on their nose as she greets students in line for lunch at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Prescott Principal Nichole Watson reminds students to keep their mask on their nose as she greets students in line for lunch at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The advisory adds that families and community members should keep children experiencing “COVID-like” symptoms home from school, and get them tested for the virus.

The school health advisory is in effect until August 31 unless otherwise updated.

COVID-19′s impact on schools next year is unknown, but ODE has asked school districts to prepare for the possibility of a fourth school year affected by the pandemic.

School districts are required to submit COVID-19 management plans for the next school year no later than Aug. 26. Those plans should outline how districts will respond to COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

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