Oregon is simplifying the COVID-19 infection standards that schools must meet to get students back in the classroom for the first time since March, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday, Oct. 30.

"We need to give Oregonians hope and encouragement," Brown said about the changes.

Brown made the announcement at a press conference along with Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, and Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist at the Oregon Health Authority.

The new rules will move the focus to infection rates based on individual counties rather than any statewide measurement. While the majority of students in the state will likely be required to continue with distance learning, an estimated 130,000 could return to the classroom as early as next month.

Brown said she believed the moves were the best way forward for the state, despite rapidly rising COVID-19 infections that led Oregon to report 600 cases on Friday, a new daily record.

“Our updated metrics are based on the latest COVID-19 studies and data, are aligned with CDC recommendations, and bring Oregon in sync with the standards of other states like California,” Brown said. “They also help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction. These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students.”

The Oregon Health Authority has reported 44,389 positive cases and 675 deaths from COVID-19 since it first appeared in the state in February. As in much of the country, the numbers are on the rise after a late summer lull. The New York Times said Friday that its analysis of local and state health records put Oregon's 14-day average of cases up 23%.

The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported Friday that there have been 8.99 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States this year, with 229,141 deaths. Cases have been spiking worldwide, with several European governments once again instituting shutdown and stay-at-home orders. COVID-19 has infected 45.3 million people and led to 1.18 million deaths worldwide.

Brown and the other state officials said students doing distance-only learning are much more likely to struggle with materials. Students who also depend on schools for meals and services such as mental health counseling are not having their needs met. Without citing specific statistics, health officials said studies since the beginning of the pandemic have shown that students returning to class are not a major spreader of infection among themselves or their communities.

Decisions over when a school would be ready to resume teaching would shift to local school districts and county health officials. They would have to meet state "metrics" on infection rates, which would be reviewed by the Oregon departments of health and education.

In a major change, the state said that meeting standards for elementary schools would allow students from kindergarten through sixth grade to return to class. Previously, students were split into K-3 and 4-6 groups, each needing to meet separate standards to be allowed to return.

Under the system, there are four color-coded categories:

Green Zone: All students from kindergarten to 12th grade would be allowed to return to class. A county must now have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week average. Smaller-population counties would have to show less than 30 total cases over that two-week period. The percentage of positive test results would have to be below 5%.

Yellow Zone: Students in elementary school grades K-6 could be taught in-person or in a hybrid program with some classroom time, but some learning done online. The state still recommends that older students do classwork from home. To reach the standard, the number of positive COVID-19 infections would have to remain between 50 and 99.9 per 100,000, while the positive test rate in the county would have to be 5% to 7.9%. Small county case numbers could be between 30 and 44 in a two-week period.

Orange Zone: State officials called this a "transitional" zone that would prepare counties for improvements to reach the yellow zone. Counties in the category could have 100-200 cases per 100,000 residents and positive test rate of 8% to 10%. Small counties could report 45-60 cases over two weeks.

Red Zone: No in-person teaching would be allowed in counties with more than 200 cases per 100,000 residents. Small counties in the category would report more than 60 cases in two weeks. It also covers those with a positive test rate above 10%.

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

Brown's office sent the media a list of counties that were eligible, partly eligible and not eligible to re-open school.

Not eligible: Crook, Harney, Jackson, Lane, Linn, Malheur, Marion, Morrow, Multnomah, Umatilla, Washington, Yamhill.

Eligible for K-6: Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Deschutes, Douglas, Polk, Wallowa, Wasco, Lake, Lincoln.

Eligible for K-12: Baker, Clatsop, Curry, Gilliam, Grant, Hood River, Jefferson, Josephine, Klamath.

The ability to keep students in school will depend on efforts in their communities to limit the spread of the virus.

“These metrics depend on the public doing its part to reduce Oregon’s case rates so that all of our children can return to in-person instruction,” said Gill, the Department of Education director. “Oregonians can reduce spread and send our kids back to school by wearing a face covering, maintaining distance, washing hands frequently, and avoiding group gatherings.”

Brown said Oregonians should rethink plans of traveling and celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. Gatherings should be small and limited to immediate family or a few friends.

If infection numbers continue to rise, Brown said all options were still "on the table," including business closures and other restrictions.

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