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Regional Interests

Health and education officials look ahead to the new school year

A David Douglas High School bus.
A David Douglas High School bus.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently announced that masks will be required for all students and staff inside school buildings this fall. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what the new school year will look like. We check in with Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill and the Oregon state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger about what students and families can expect.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: We’re continuing our conversation about the coming school year and the statewide mask mandate ordered recently for all students and staff inside Oregon’s K-12 schools. Over the weekend, we asked how folks felt about the new mandate. Most people who left messages were happy about it. Here’s a taste of the voice mails that came in.

Oliver Voicemail: My name is Oliver. I’m in 4th grade and I’m nine years old and I don’t mind wearing a mask. I think that’s a good idea to help stop the spread of COVID.

Special Ed Teacher Voicemail: Hi. I work at a program in central Oregon and we were in person almost the entire year this past school year. I work with kids who have significant disabilities of all kinds. And we were in masks all day every day for the entire school year. My students did amazing. It was great and I think they’re gonna do awesome again this year and I hope everyone has a great year.

Eva Voicemail: Hi, I’m Eva. I go to Cherry Park Elementary School and I’m going into 3rd grade. When I have a mask on, it doesn’t make me feel like I’m myself. It doesn’t make me really comfortable having a mask on all day because people don’t get to see your smile, but they can tell it from your eyes. So I don’t think I’m really comfortable wearing a mask.

Alba Voicemail: Hi, my name is Alba. I’m calling from Portland Oregon. I think it’s gonna be weird not seeing everyone’s full face for a while and it might be kind of hard to get used to. But hopefully this will help, at least a little, with things getting back to the way they were. I think if wearing a mask for the rest of school is like what it takes to keep everyone safe, I think it’s worth a little discomfort.

Yolana Voicemail: Hello, my name is Yolana. I’m 14 years old and I’m going into my freshman year of high school at Ida B. Wells High School. I think that it’s a good thing that we have to wear masks and I’m very fortunate that that’s the decision that has been made. Because then there’s just no question of if you’re vaccinated or not. And then you also don’t have kids who are not wearing masks even though they’re not vaccinated. It’s just a lot easier for everybody. I mean, I get the fact that it’s hard to read people’s facial expressions and it’s going to be weird to have a piece of cloth over our face for a significant amount of time. But really, I think we have to prioritize safety at this point.

Miller: For more on the mask mandate and what the Delta variant could mean for young people, I’m joined by Colt Gill, the Director of the Oregon Department of Education and Dean Sidelinger, who is the State Epidemiologist. One of the things that we heard before the Delta variant is that even if kids were exposed to COVID, it was highly unlikely that they would get dangerously sick and that they were less likely than adults to pass the virus on. How much of that is still the case with Delta?

Dean Sidelinger: I think Delta has really changed things. What we know about Delta is that it is so much more transmissible than the previous variants, right up there with diseases like measles or chickenpox. Without any measures or vaccines in place, people can infect eight or more other people. So it’s much more transmissible. We know that more kids as well as more adults are being infected. So there will be a percentage who will get more seriously ill.

Whether Delta causes more serious illness in children or adults, that debate is still ongoing and the data is coming down that maybe it causes more severe disease. But it is causing more disease and the opportunity for more kids to be hospitalized. We’re not seeing that right now in Oregon. But many other states, especially our southern neighbors, are seeing a tremendous increase in hospitalizations among kids and we want to prevent that here in Oregon.

Miller: In terms of the data, are you saying we don’t know now if that’s because the Delta variant is actually more dangerous to kids or if it’s simply because it’s more transmissible and more kids are getting it. We simply don’t know the answers to those questions yet?

Sidelinger: That’s correct. And it may be a combination of those two. What I can say is kids are more impacted by this and there are kids who are going to get more seriously ill. And that may just be a result of the volume and not necessarily the variant itself, causing more illness. But we’re still gathering data on that across our states and across other countries.

Miller: But so far we haven’t seen significant numbers of kids in Oregon becoming hospitalized?

Sidelinger: That’s correct. Our pediatric census of the children who are in hospitals right now has not increased significantly due to COVID, though that could happen as we’re a couple weeks into this large increase. We need to wait and see.

Miller: We’ve been talking for months now about the return to all-day in-person instruction in K-12 schools. But is there some case rate or hospitalization rate or other tangible metric that would trigger a return to distance learning that would throw all of this away?

Colt Gill: Thanks for that question. I think we are very much hoping for a school year where all of our students attend every school day in person. We believe that that is the best approach to education for our kids, especially after what they’ve experienced the last several months. We are very much focused on the mitigation efforts. It’s one of the reasons why we put the state requirement for face masks in schools into place. We have a number of recommendations for other mitigation efforts that did work with previous COVID-19 variants that we had here in Oregon.

We were successful in the spring opening all of our schools to in person instruction and a majority of our students attended in person with very few cases being transmitted at the schools. So we think that this can be done. We are closely watching the numbers with the Delta variant as school opens and will continue to closely watch those. It could be that in some communities where there is some spread that we either have some quarantines for people who have been exposed or, in extreme cases, we will watch the local numbers and work with our partners at the local public health authorities to determine if there is a community that does need to move back to online [learning]. We’re hopeful that that’s not the case and our schools are very practiced in implementing all of these mitigation efforts at this time.

Miller: When you hear superintendents like Mark Witty ask for more local choice, more local decision-making authority over something like a mask mandate, what does that make you think about?

Gill: We always think about student safety first and achieving this goal of having our students attend in-person every day this school year. One of the things that helps us keep kids in schools is to limit the impact of quarantines on students who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19. That’s really critical and when students are wearing face coverings, they can be closer together without being impacted by a quarantine. So that’s one of the things we think of.

Also in our Ready Schools Safe Learners framework this year, which any of your listeners can take a look at, at Oregon.gov/readyschools we have a number of recommendations for school districts. In comparison to the previous year, there is a lot more local decision making and local control. Last year we had well over 120 state requirements that schools needed to follow. This year we have four. So the mask requirement is one of those four and we’ll closely be watching to see if more need to be added to help ensure that our students and our staff members and the families they return to each day, stay safe this school year.

Miller: The Governor’s office has left mask mandates up to County Health districts right now and has been pretty clear that it needs to be an issue of local control clearly saying that this is, in some ways, a political necessity. The thinking is that if the mandate comes locally, it’s more likely that residents will follow those mandates. What makes school districts different because there is a statewide mandate?

Gill: What’s different in schools is we have a lot more information about how the layered approach has really controlled the spread of COVID within schools. And by law, kids have to attend schools and they’re in schools for six or more hours a day, five days a week, in a single classroom. So we know there’s a significant amount of exposure and we know that within schools, our youngest students are not yet eligible for vaccines. Some of our older students and staff have not yet been vaccinated. And we have people in the school population with underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised and may be vaccinated but not have full protection. We’re spending significant amounts of time together. And what we learned during the last school year is that safety measures such as masks really do work to control the spread and make sure that this is a safe environment while students and staff are in the building, making sure that they’re not taking COVID back home to their families and contributing to community spread. So those are some of the nuances that we think about when addressing COVID spread in schools versus the broader community.

Miller: I want to run another voicemail that we got. Let’s have a listen.

Mallory Crane Voicemail: My name is Mallory Crane and I am a school counselor at a primary school in Philomath Oregon. In a rural area it’s really difficult to feel very secure and safe. There are a lot of anti-vax and anti-mask people around, people who are very, very angry with educators for wanting to promote safety and health amongst students and who don’t want to follow these mandates in the community and don’t want their kids following these mandates in schools. And that has been really challenging and scary.

Miller: How will enforcement of this mask mandate work? And what are the consequences if a school doesn’t comply with it or doesn’t enforce the mask mandate?

Gill: Of course, first we’re focusing on communicating and informing and trying to have everyone understand where Oregon is at and what we’re trying to prevent from happening. So Oregon is among many states who have a statewide school mask mandate. Some of the latest ones include Louisiana who, unfortunately, waited until their pediatric wards were filling and overflowing. And that’s what we’re trying to prevent. So it’s really important that we get the word out about why it’s so critical that we use this as one of our primary mitigation efforts. But we do have enforcement.

The enforcement works through Oregon OSHA. It’s complaint driven. So if any community member, students, or staff member feels like the mask rule is not being enforced at their local school, they can submit a complaint. The complaint can be delivered anonymously. Oregon OSHA can maintain that anonymity if that’s a fear that a community member has. With that ‚the Oregon OSHA will go out, inform the school district that they received a complaint, they will investigate with a personal visit to see if the mask mandate is being enforced and they’ll review Board records and things like that to see if there’s any willful decision to go against the mask rule.

Then fines can be levied to both private and public schools who failed to follow. Those fines are anywhere from $8,900 to $126,000. They are based partly on a failure to enforce. Those can be much lower fines, like $100 where they’re willfully disobeying the rule as it’s written. Also as licensed educators, teachers, counselors, school administrators all have a requirement to follow the laws of the State of Oregon, they can have their licenses possibly suspended or revoked if they knowingly and willfully declined to follow the law.

And so we’re hopeful that none of these enforcement procedures need to be in place. We believe that our School District leaders or School Board members want to keep their students, their communities and their staff members safe. So we’re very hopeful that once we get the information very clearly out to folks about where we’re at, in Oregon with hospitalization rates and COVID rates related to Delta, that folks will help to enforce the rule and work with community members and students who may personally disagree with it, but just recognize when we’re all together in one place, it’s as important for us to care for ourselves as the students sitting on either side of us in the classroom and their families that could be impacted by a COVID case.

Miller: We’re living in a time where the differences in the way different states are handling this exact question is unbelievably stark. I’m thinking in particular about Florida, where a governor, Ron DeSantis, says that if local schools require that people wear masks in schools, he will try to withhold the salaries of members of the School Boards or of Superintendents. Meanwhile, Florida’s case rate is almost four times that of Oregon’s. They’re dealing with one of the nation’s most serious surges in COVID cases. What do you think about Ron DeSantis’ position?

Sidelinger: In Oregon, what we’re trying to balance is the need to promote the safety of students and staff while they’re in school and also minimize the risk of catching COVID there and bringing it home. But at the same point, we know that last year was a tremendously challenging year for students, their families and for our staff with COVID. So masks, when effectively used and vaccinations are two tools that we can use to really limit spread within schools. [Both] provide protection within schools that don’t limit our ability to serve students in person. To have a student in a chair at a desk in front of a talented teacher isn’t impacted by masks. So I think, using the tools that we have to try and promote that stability and minimize disruptions from exposure to COVID requiring quarantine is something that we need to do to move toward an even more normal school year and toward a sense of recovery [among] families in the broader community.

Miller: I didn’t hear you mention Florida or DeSantis there at all, but we’ll move on since I get the sense you don’t want to wade into those state decisions. But I’m curious about, as you talk about moving towards normalcy, what would it take for you to recommend to Governor Brown that she rescind this mask rule?

Sidelinger: What we would need to see is, particularly in elementary schools, that vaccines are available to the people in that community right now. We only have vaccines available for those 12 and up. We have under 50% of our adolescents currently vaccinated. So we want to see that vaccine available. We also want to see tremendously lower case rates. Right now these are some of the highest case rates and highest hospitalizations we’ve seen in response to COVID across this entire pandemic. And this is in light of about two thirds of the adult population already being vaccinated. So these cases are raging through a much smaller population, which is evidence of how transmissible this is. So right now, all but one county in Oregon is considered by the CDC to be in high or substantial transmission, not a single one in the lower transmission.

So I think from a public health perspective, I’d like to see, before I make that recommendation, is counties really moving down into the lower transmission rate, which is 10 times or lower than where most counties are right now. [I’d like to also see] vaccines being available so that we can make sure students, teachers and their staff have as safe an environment as possible with minimal disruptions or having to quarantine or move into different models of instruction. That’s what we’ll be looking at over the next couple of months.

Miller: What’s the latest you’ve heard in terms of when authorization for vaccines for kids younger than 12 could be granted?

Sidelinger: What we’re anticipating, based on the data from the studies, it could be as early as this fall or into the winter when we see emergency use authorization or approval for kids younger than 12. Winter is the latest I’ve heard.

Miller: What is supposed to happen if or when there’s a positive case in a school this fall?

Gill: There’s an instruction booklet that walks them through the process. So they contact the family, through the Oregon Health Authority. We have on site COVID-19 testing that can be used for any of the students or staff members who were exposed or who are showing symptoms. So that can be their first opportunity to take a COVID-19 test in relation to any kind of an exposure at school. They contact the local Public Health authority who works on contact tracing with every individual family member and staff member who may have been exposed to the person who had COVID-19 at a school site. They recommend the quarantine protocols based on how physically close the two people were and how long they were in that proximity and whether they were wearing face coverings. It can also be adjusted based on whether the person is the individual exposed, has been vaccinated or has had a recent case of particular strains of COVID- 19. All those play into the quarantine decisions.

It’s very individual for each of the people who may have been exposed, so the schools work closely with the local Public Health authorities on making that determination. One of the things we learned last school year is that when we have very high numbers of COVID-19 cases in our communities like we’re beginning to experience now, our local Public Health authorities need to go into their surge capacity. What generally happens is more people end up being quarantined. It could be that an entire cohort, a classroom of students or a wing of a school would be quarantined and need to participate remotely. And that’s only because the local Public Health authorities don’t have capacity to do that tight knit contact tracing, so they err on the side of safety and more people get quarantined. That’s another reason why it’s really critical for us to ensure that more people in Oregon get vaccinated and we get our overall COVID-19 case rates down as much as possible. It helps keep our kids in school, safe and learning.

Miller: You’re talking about the hope for higher vaccination rates. Do you have a sense for vaccination rates among K-12 teachers and staff in the state?

Gill: We don’t have specific numbers on the percentage of staff members. We know through some informal surveying that it tends to be higher than the community in which they are serving. So even though we have some counties with vaccination rates that are down in the 30-40% range, typically when we have heard from the school district leaders, their staff vaccination rates are much closer to the 70-90% range, even in those communities. So we feel good about vaccination rates of our teachers. Governor Brown took the initiative to prioritize educators so that we could get school up and running again. And I think many of our educators took advantage of that.

Miller: I want to run one more voice mail by you.

Voicemail: You know, if Governor Brown is requiring masks for K through 12, what about the private schools? Because I’m a public school teacher and um, a lot of our kiddos have headed towards private schools because their parents way back last March could afford the parochial schools and realized that the hybrid wasn’t going to give them a full day to go to work. And so they were affluent enough with two incomes to go back to work and put their kids leave the public school even last spring and go for 10 weeks to parochial and they’re staying.

Miller: My understanding from reading about this is that private schools are included in this mask mandate. But I’m curious what you know about the number of students who have left Oregon’s public school systems for private schools last year and who you think are going to continue to stay within the private school system. Are you expecting a kind of ongoing exodus?

Gill: No, we don’t have any evidence of that right now. We do have some evidence that fewer students, especially in kindergarten, came to school last year to begin their kindergarten year. That is allowable in Oregon. Kindergarten is not a grade level that has required attendance so that has happened in previous years in Oregon. And our hope is that this year’s first grade is representative of the full size that we would expect, and kindergarten is back up to its regular enrollment. All of the protocols that were in place last year applied both to private and public schools, and were enforced and will continue to be enforced by Oregon OSHA.

Miller: We’ve been focusing on K- 12 schools. But when you look more broadly at the State, what’s your best estimate for the timeline of this surge right now? When are you expecting it to crest? And how much worse do you think it’s going to get before that?

Sidelinger: When we look at other countries that have faced a surge from Delta and at our modeling, we’re expecting the surge to continue at least for the next few weeks and to lead to hospitalizations which will last a couple of weeks, which may peak in the first or second week of September. So we’re in for another few weeks to another rough month of increasing cases. And that’s why we changed the statewide recommendation that all people vaccinated or unvaccinated should wear masks indoors. Vaccinated people are very protected but there is a small chance that they could catch the virus and pass it on to others. So masks become critically important as we get more vaccines into arms to try and control this virus without exposing more people to unnecessary illness and these hospitalizations continue to increase.

Anyone who has followed the numbers can see that day over day, we’re seeing significantly more people in the hospital. We could soon reach a capacity where the hospitals can’t provide the high quality care for COVID patients or folks who’ve had a heart attack or folks who’ve been involved in motor vehicle crash because they simply don’t have the staffing or the equipment to take care of everyone. By coming together, wearing our masks and getting vaccinated if we haven’t already done so, we can try and prevent that from happening. Over the next several weeks, even with those tools, it is going to be rough for healthcare partners or public health partners as people are exposed to this virus and get sick.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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