Episode 16: What to Expect This School Year

Episode 16,  Sep 10, 03:00 PM

Q1: What can students and families expect for the 2021-22 school year? 

A1: Oregon schools have taken strong steps to limit the spread of the virus in schools. Last year, there were more than 120 state requirements to follow. Now school districts are back to making health and safety decisions for their schools to best meet the needs local communities.

Learning from last year and what we know now about COVID-19, there are health and safety recommendations and requirements that all K-12 public, charter, and private schools must follow. For example, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) has advised schools to use these best tools for protecting students against COVID-19:

  • Vaccination for those eligible, 
  • Face coverings, 
  • Physical distancing, 
  • Ventilation and airflow,
  • Handwashing, and 
  • Staying home if ill or exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Q2: How are things different now from what they were last year at the start of school? 

A2: We know a lot more about the virus now than this time last year. We know much more about how it spreads and how to keep students and teachers safe. 

This year, all schools will operate full-time, in-person instruction every day. School districts are only required to offer remote learning for students who have to stay at home for isolation or quarantine.

There are also two testing programs for K-12 schools to identify COVID-19 infections early and often:

  • Diagnostic testing to quickly confirm COVID-19 in staff and students showing signs of COVID-19 infection; and
  • A screening program to identify COVID-19 in staff and students who aren’t showing signs of infection.

 This year, we have three vaccines available to protect ourselves from COVID-19; and all school staff and volunteers are also required to be fully vaccinated by October 18, 2021.

All staff and students ages 5 and older are also required to wear masks indoors. 

Q3: What about the Delta variant?

A3: Oregon has seen a steep increase in COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations in recent weeks. This is driven by the Delta variant of the virus, which is much more easily transmitted and now makes up over 95% of cases in Oregon. There have been more “breakthrough cases” among vaccinated people due to the Delta variant, though the number of breakthrough cases remains exceedingly low. 

The Delta variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe illness among children, but among adults (including younger adults) there is an increase in hospitalizations— So much that hospital bed capacity across the state is highly stressed. 

The vaccine and mask requirements will help make it less likely that:

  • Students and staff become exposed to COVID-19; 
  • COVID-19 related isolations and quarantines occur; or
  • COVID-19 related hospitalizations occur.

By reducing these risks, we are making it more likely that students can keep learning in person.

Q4: If COVID-19 cases are going up again, is it safe to return to in-person school at all? 

A4: Cases are up, but we know from last year that we can greatly limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools. In Oregon and elsewhere, we have seen that in group settings we can reduce and nearly eliminate the spread – but only if health and safety recommendations, like using face coverings, are followed. We also have seen high rates of spread in places where face coverings were not required. 

Face coverings, keeping physical distance, and regular hand washing are tools we have been using to control the spread of the virus. Each tool on their own can’t control the spread of the virus. But when you use all the tools combined, they are highly effective at minimizing the spread of the virus.

Q5: Are schools a place where the virus is commonly spread? Have there been outbreaks in schools? 

A5: The spread of COVID-19 was not common in Oregon schools last year, but there were some outbreaks. Because children under age 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine, and a significant number of people age 12 and older are not yet vaccinated, schools are settings with a large number of unvaccinated individuals. This gives schools high potential to spread COVID-19 if safety precautions are not taken. In other states that have started in-person school without masks and other protective measures in place, there are already many reports of outbreaks and schools needing to close again. 

Q6: What happens if a school or school district does not implement or enforce the rules? 

A6: Any person who has a concern that a school is not in compliance with the ODE guidance can file a complaint with Oregon OSHA at 1-833-604-0884 or online. If OHA or ODE receive complaints, they will refer them to Oregon OSHA. 

Q7: What steps have schools taken to improve ventilation and air circulation? 

A7: Schools have been advised to improve the indoor air quality in schools by: 
  • Increasing the amount of fresh outside air that is introduced into the system; 
  • Making sure air moves from indoors to the outdoors; and 
  • Cleaning indoor air with effective filtration methods (e.g., HEPA filters). 

Your school district’s website should provide information about improvements schools have made with indoor ventilation.

What families can do:

Q8. How can families help everyone stay safe as kids head back to the classroom? 

Q8: OHA and ODE have shared a 5-step checklist for families that includes:

  1. Make a plan to vaccinate all eligible household members.
  2. Wear face coverings or masks in public and in carpools.
  3. Limit gatherings with other households— including big events for kids, like birthday parties.
  4. Move social activities outdoors.
  5. Make a plan in case your child needs to miss school.