SALEM — The bar has been lowered for reopening smaller schools this fall as Oregon continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Oregon Department of Education announced Tuesday, Aug. 11, that in counties with fewer than 30,000 residents, schools with 250 students or less can reopen if there are no more than 30 COVID-19 cases in the county for the past three weeks. The local public health authority also must find that there is no community spread of COVID-19 in the school's attendance area.
Schools in 16 rural counties can open under these guidelines, including those in Baker, Grant, Harney and Lake Counties, as well as Wallowa County.
There is also a statewide reopening exception for school districts with 75 or fewer total students. If there isn't community COVID-19 spread in either the school's enrollment area, or in nearby communities where many people work or shop, those schools can reopen.
The school reopening metrics that Gov. Kate Brown announced in late July still apply for most Oregon schools in populous counties.
For those schools, the county in which a school district is located must meet these standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less positive tests per week, according to Brown’s new mandate. The state must also have 5% or less positive tests as a whole, the new rule states.
Instead of using the case rates per 100,000 people, the new metrics for smaller counties use the total number of cases. For Wallowa County, this means that as long the county has fewer 30 cases — it currently has 19 — over the most recent three-week period, with fewer than 15 cases in the last week of the three-week period, districts can open for in-person learning in classrooms.
“Since Wallowa County’s three-week total is one, Wallowa School District can return to in-class/face-to-face learning in our classrooms,” said Tammy Jones, superintendent of the Wallowa School District.
Wallowa schools will be opening Tuesday, Sept. 8, for face-to-face in-class learning at all grade levels, according to Jones.
“Students and staff will have to rigorously follow social distancing, mask, and hygiene requirements included in our blueprint plan for reopening,” she said.
Lower school-wide metrics for these large-county schools, public or private, only apply if the school has a population of 250 students or fewer, and if it is eight or more miles away from any public school that serves the same grade levels.
Regardless of student population, schools can conduct in-person learning with small, specific groups of students of no more than 10, but only if there are zero COVID-19 cases among school staff or students for two weeks. These groups include students in career and technical education classes, students learning English and students experiencing disabilities.
These students can only be on campus for a maximum of two hours per day and participation in these in-person sessions cannot be mandatory.
Enterprise and Joseph Charter School will also be starting on Sept. 8.
Enterprise will hold its classes on a staggered schedule, said Enterprise School District Superintendent Erika Pinkerton.
“That means that students will have less time in class than normal,” she said. But the Oregon Department of Education is willing to work with us on the number of hours of classroom time required of students under these conditions."