Updated May 3, 2021
Schools across Oregon have begun reopening for in-person learning. Even a few weeks in class, coupled with in-person summer programming, may help students regain some learning and connection that may have suffered as schools moved to online instruction.
Across the country, we have seen schools that carefully follow safety protocols open safely. Returning to class poses a low risk when schools and families adhere to public health recommendations and safety protocols. Schools and public health partners will monitor the re-entry and make adjustments to safety procedures as they learn more about what works.
What is the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools?
Overall, transmission between children in schools has been low. It is lowest among younger kids and increases by middle and high school. Risk of transmission in class is lower than the risk during extracurricular and social activities. And that risk is lowest when schools adhere to public health recommendations.
In-person learning can be done in a way that limits risk to kids, families and staff.
Transmission is directly correlated to how closely a school follows public health recommendations while operating in-person and how well families follow public health recommendations at home. It’s many of the same recommendations:
Mask up unless you’re eating or drinking
Wash hands regularly and well
Follow the school’s distance rules:
3 - 6 feet from others when in the classroom with your mask on, and
At least 6 feet from others at all other times.*
Limit social gatherings, especially indoors
Don’t expand your social circle too quickly or widely
*CDC and ODE have modified distancing guidance for classrooms. Three feet distance may be allowed between students in classroom cohorts when masked, with additional requirements for Performing Arts. Six feet distancing should still be applied in all other scenarios.
What is Multnomah County’s role in limiting disease spread?
The Multnomah County Health Department’s Communicable Disease Services program has long-standing partnerships with the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD), school districts, and staff. They work together on vaccination education and events, and when there are cases of communicable diseases, such as measles, in a school.
Communicable Disease Services, as well as staff from the County’s Emergency Operation Center, has been in regular and close communication with schools, daycares and MESD since the pandemic began. Under the governor’s Ready Schools, Safe Learning guidance, each school submits an operational blueprint to the County for review and feedback.
What happens if a school member tests positive?
When a case is identified in a school, that school and the County’s Communicable Disease Services team work together to identify people who might have been exposed and reduce the risk of spread. For now, Multnomah County Public Health is recommending a cohort model for classes, transportation and extracurricular activities and sports. A cohort is a group of students and staff who stay together.
If a case is identified, the entire cohort (classroom group for example) is considered exposed and asked to quarantine.
If you are not fully vaccinated, you should quarantine for 14 days after close contact with someone who has COVID-19 or who has tested positive for COVID-19. The shorter quarantine time of 10 days should be avoided. Multnomah County Health does not support shortening the quarantine period as a result of a negative test in days 5-7.
If you are fully vaccinated (more than two weeks past your second dose or single dose if you had a single-dose vaccine), you do not need to quarantine after close contact unless you have symptoms.
If someone from the school district or public health calls you, follow their quarantine instructions.
In the event of an outbreak that can’t be controlled with these initial measures, the school administrator would have authority to close a school, with input from the County Health Officer. This has seldom been needed in school districts around the country that have opened using public health safety guidelines like masking and distancing.
Could schools close down again?
COVID cases in Oregon and Multnomah County declined markedly from mid-January until late March. With some re-opening of businesses, our COVID case numbers have flattened and are drifting up a bit, but still much lower than they were in the winter.
Our region has done a good job driving down the risk, and we have tools to keep those numbers low. Vaccination of our highest risk groups will help prevent hospitalizations and deaths. Multnomah County Public Health will continue to monitor disease trends.
It is important to know that many schools around the U.S. and the world remained open or re-opened during periods when COVID cases were much higher than they are now. Data shows us that schools are not a source of higher cases in the community. While very high and surging rates of COVID in the community might be a reason for everyone to stay home, higher or modest climbs of case rates are not an indication to close schools.
COVID-19 will continue to pose some risk during any in-person interaction, and the region will see cases go back up as variant strains spread and public health guidance changes. Public Health will continue to evaluate data to determine whether schools are contributing to increased cases in the community.
Student Health Centers offer primary and mental health care to all Multnomah County youth ages 5 to 18. There are no out-of-pocket costs. Any youth can receive primary care services at any one of our open student health center locations.
SUN sites usually offer programs for kids and families. When schools closed, staff focused on meeting the immediate need for emergency relief services such as food, unemployment benefits and health insurance. Sites will slowly return to providing in-person services as schools reopen.