Third grader Avery Brent works in class at Alameda Elementary School on Thursday, Nov. 5. The school last week returned about 65 students to classrooms for limited instruction. (The Enterprise/FILE)

BEND - On the day the state put 25 counties in the extreme-risk category for spreading COVID-19, a group of Central Oregon policymakers sent a letter urging Gov. Kate Brown to allow elementary students to return to in-person instruction.

Their request comes at a time when the county’s chief health officer admitted that Deschutes County was in the pandemic deeper than it had hoped to be, said Dr. George Conway, Deschutes County Health Services director.

“It’s continued to steepen really since not long after the Fourth of July. There was a slightest lull and we continue to steepen every day, particularly after Halloween, and we are very concerned about getting into a further surge, in the aftermath of Thanksgiving,” Conway said during a Zoom press briefing Thursday morning. “We’re continuing to rise, and in the past week they rose very sharply.”

Central Oregon, the state and the nation are facing burgeoning number of positive cases and a death toll that continues to rise. On Wednesday, more than 2,800 deaths were reported in the United States, the most ever reported in a single day since the pandemic began in early March. Los Angeles issued a stay-at-home order. And New York City was pushing ahead for more elementary students to attend in-person instruction.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday warned that it will be rough for the country with large numbers of cases of and deaths from COVID-19.

Amid such ominous warnings, the 19 signatures on the letter to Brown and Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill, pushed for more screening and testing and to allow elementary students to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 4.

Bend Mayor Sally Russell said Thursday that now is the time for everyone to re-double efforts to curtail the spread of the virus so that the youngest students can return to the classroom.

“We all understand the huge risk to our really young people in not getting them back into an educational environment where they can socialize with each other,” Russell said. “It also affects disproportionately those households that need to work outside the home.

“We all know that when people follow the guidelines, we can lower the prevalence of the disease in our community.”

According to the statewide metrics for reopening schools, counties with more than 30,000 people need to have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people in order to have in-person instruction.

The letter was also signed by five of the seven Bend-La Pine School Board members: Julie Craig, Carrie Douglass, Shimiko Montgomery, Caroline Skidmore and Amy Tatom.

Douglass said Thursday that recent data has shown distance learning results in learning loss for some students.

She said she’s heard anecdotally that staying away from school has hurt student’s mental health.

“As data piles up showing the negative impact of distance learning on our students, we believe we need to prioritize getting our students back in school,” Douglass said in an interview.

Douglass added that reopening K-5 schools is being emphasized over middle and high schools because not only are younger children less likely to transmit COVID-19, but distance learning has extra challenges for students who need adult supervision.

“Younger students, many of whom can’t read or operate technology on their own, nor can legally be left alone, need to be the first priority,” she said.

Christie Otley, an Alfalfa resident with two children at Buckingham Elementary and one at Pilot Butte Middle School, said she was excited to learn of the push to get elementary students back to in-person instruction.

“That makes me feel hopeful, which is something I haven’t felt in a very long time,” Otley said. “It’s the first sign that there’s people in political positions who understand what our problem with (distance learning) is.”

Conway said that the community can help to lower the cases by staying home, washing hands and wearing masks.

“There is hope on the horizon,” Conway said. “Hold on. Very, very soon, we’ll have a vaccine, so this won’t be an endless change to everyone’s life.”

This story is published with permission as part of a statewide collaboration of news organizations to share stories. The Enterprise is part of the collaboration.

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