Vale High School was preparing for in-person instruction until the state decided to establish school reopening requirements July 28. (Malheur Enterprise/Aidan McGloin)

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VALE – Fewer than 4 out of 100 students and 5 out of 100 of teachers and staff would become infected with Covid between September and December if schools reopened under Oregon’s requirements, a new report shows.

An Aug. 13 report from the Institute for Disease Modeling calculated the infection rates if schools required masks, sanitized, grouped students and screened for disease, which local schools are planning on doing.

The research shows Oregon is being more conservative than some researchers say is necessary. Malheur County sees 10 times as many cases as the state allows for schools to open in-person. Gov. Kate Brown said it could take until April for all of Oregon’s students to be back in the classroom at the current pace of infections.

The report also found that the difference in Covid spread between in-person education with protective measures and all remote learning was around the same, and that as long as there were sufficient countermeasures in schools, in-person learning will not increase community transmission. 

The study concluded that in-person instruction where students are split into Monday-Tuesday and Wednesday-Thursday groups with precautions similar to what Malheur County schools have considered would reduce the number of infections even further.

“What we have found is that there is no ‘zero risk’ scenario for resuming in-person instruction in Washington state schools,” said Jamie Cohen, a co-author of the IDM report, in a press release. “But our analysis shows that there are pathways to resuming limited and carefully monitored in-person instruction for younger students. This can happen only if everyone works together to minimize disease transmission in their local communities.”

Oregon’s school reopening requirements, from Aug. 11, say that Malheur County must have no more than 30 new cases over three weeks for schools to reopen in-person. A previous version, from July 28, said the county could have no more than 10 cases per 100,000 residents, or more than 10 cases in Malheur County over three weeks.

Oregon’s original school requirements from July 28 weren’t supported by any formal report or analysis, said Thomas Jeanne, deputy state epidemiologist.

The decision to set the metrics was mostly done by consensus of senior health officials after extrapolating data of case counts from previous Covid spikes in Oregon, looking at national recommendations, checking with other state guidance and reviewing 15 countries’ case rates when schools were reopened, said Jeanne.

But four of the six countries the state said opened schools at the correct time actually could not reopen schools if they followed Oregon’s guidance, because their cases were as far as three times higher than what the state required in the weeks leading up to school reopening, a review of data by the Malheur Enterprise showed.

The state changed requirements for sparsely populated counties like Malheur County Aug. 11, after pushback from a coalition of rural Oregon leaders, including state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.

The new guidelines for smaller counties were exactly what the working group came up with, said Findley.

The Oregon Health Authority, when explaining both guidelines, cited a previous study from the Institute of Disease Modeling.

The agency said that “unless community spread is reduced, reopening schools to in-person instruction, even with protective measures like physical distancing and face coverings, will cause significant growth of the epidemic.”

But Dan Klein, who wrote the modeling report, said that wasn’t the best way to characterize the report.

If the number of new infections caused by every infected person is fewer than one, schools can reopen as long as they follow prevention methods, said Klein.

For every one person infected in Malheur County now, another 1.14 is infected, according to Harvard research from Aug. 8.

Klein couldn’t comment on Oregon’s school reopening requirements, but he said the state’s approach of looking at other countries’ rates is useful since there is not a lot of research completed on the new virus.

Schools nonetheless are not going to be zero risk if they do reopen in-person, said Klein.  

The health authority also cited a study for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which said that schools reopening will increase Covid spread, but that prevention strategies can significantly help.

Certain factors must be considered when reopening schools, like “the rate of infections in the local community, the size of the school, and the age of students (and corresponding ability to learn at home),” the state agency said, citing that Pennsylvania study.

But that study also advised that “schools in different circumstances might reasonably make different decisions.”

A Brookings Institution analysis in July of reopening plans for 256 U.S. school districts representing 13 million students found partisan politics appeared to be driving school reopening decisions more than the rate of new coronavirus cases.

The analysis, by senior fellow Jon Valant, found virtually no relationship between whether a district planned to offer in-person classes to all students or remote instruction only and the number of new coronavirus cases reported in the surrounding county in July.

Instead, districts located in counties where a majority of voters supported President Donald Trump in 2016 were more likely to reopen in-person classes, while districts in counties supporting Hillary Clinton were more likely to offer remote instruction only, researchers found.

Among states that have developed metrics for holding classes, Oregon’s remain relatively strict.

Minnesota, which has reported more coronavirus cases per resident than Oregon, is allowing schools to hold in-person classes so long as the counties they’re in report no more than 10 new coronavirus cases per 10,000 residents in a single week. Oregon’s metric for Malheur County is roughly 3.2 cases per 10,000 residents - one-third the Minnesota allowance.

Iowa schools are allowed to teach virtually only if the county test positivity rate exceeds 15%, Iowa Public Radio reported.

California requires counties to have fewer than 100 new cases per 100,000 over two weeks or 25 new cases with a positive test rate of 8%, and a number of other metrics including a high enough testing number and hospital beds, for schools to reopen in-person.

Idaho, meanwhile, gives local school districts the ability to choose how to teach, similar to what was offered in Oregon until a month ago. The Payette, New Plymouth and Nampa School Districts are returning to teach in-person after decisions from their school boards, with online learning options.

PRIOR COVERAGE

Local school district officials react to new Covid benchmarks

State officials relent, giving Malheur County schools more options to put kids in classrooms

Malheur County school officials working on plans for schools reopening in the fall

News tip? Contact reporter Aidan McGloin at [email protected] or at 541-473-3377.

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