Starting March 12, Oregon will end contact tracing and quarantine for the “general population,” including schools. New procedures for schools are outlined in an updated resilience framework, released Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Education.
With the recent announcement giving decision-making authority over masks to local headteachers, ODE guidance is providing information on new quarantine, contact tracing and testing protocols for schools. The new guidelines are expected to be in effect until the end of the school year.
Education and health officials say contact tracing efforts are delaying transmission of the coronavirus, and Oregon has “very high levels” of immunity due to vaccines and COVID-19 cases. Officials say the duration of immunity is unknown.
At a press conference Wednesday, ODE Director Colt Gill said Oregon was entering a new stage of the pandemic.
“Over the past two years we’ve made a lot of changes,” Gill said. “From ‘stay home, save lives,’ to physical distancing and masking, to reintroducing in-person learning…every change over the past two years has been a response to a new stage of the pandemic and its impacts, as well as our experience in learning about the effectiveness of various mitigation efforts.
With hospitalizations declining rapidly in Oregon, the end of the statewide mask mandate has changed twice — first from March 31 to March 19, then again most recently to March 12.
Governor Kate Brown announced the new date of March 12 in cooperation with leaders in Washington and California.
Instead of contact tracing, schools are “strongly encouraged” to notify student groups when an exposure occurs. The ODE defines exposure to COVID-19 as “close indoor unmasked contact with a person with COVID-19 within six feet for 15 minutes or more.”
The ‘test-to-stay’ tests available to schools will now shift to only testing certain students and staff, including those who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19.
This follows new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared on Monday.
“We would encourage schools to work to make these tests accessible to people at high risk,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Wednesday. “This could include special education classrooms or classrooms that serve large numbers of students with disabilities so they have access to testing.”
Schools will still have access to diagnostic tests for anyone with symptoms and screening tests for those who have not been vaccinated. According to the OHA, 45 school districts and 59 individual schools are participating in testing, with varying levels of participation. More than 10,000 staff have signed up for the screening, but not all of them are actively participating.
Districts are still required to have a communicable disease plan to deal with any outbreaks. For anyone who contracts COVID-19 and exhibits symptoms, a period of isolation of at least five days is recommended, followed by an additional five days of wearing a properly fitted mask. Isolation is not mandatory but strongly recommended.
“Schools have a responsibility if they know someone with COVID-19, to exclude them for those five days while they recover,” Sidelinger said.
Also starting March 12, masks will no longer be required on school buses. This matches a recent change from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During Wednesday’s briefing, Gill emphasized that these changes do not mean the pandemic is over. He said the ODE is also working with schools to ensure students and staff who continue to wear masks after March 12 feel respected and safe at school.
“All of this represents a significant change in the operations of our schools and in the daily experience of students and staff,” Gill said. “It can feel like it signals the end of the pandemic, and I want to make it clear that’s not the intention here.”
The guidelines also list “primary” and “non-primary” symptoms of COVID-19, with the ODE encouraging anyone with “primary” symptoms to get tested and stay home. The main symptoms include cough, fever and shortness of breath. Non-primary symptoms include headache, sore throat, and fatigue.
Despite the end of the mandate, the ODE and the Oregon Health Authority continue to “strongly advise” universal masking as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in order to “minimize the time lost learning in school due to disease” when county transmission levels are high.
While many school district leaders have indicated they will follow the state when Mask’s tenure ends, others are awaiting guidance from the ODE before making a decision.
In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said masks will be optional when students go to school on Monday, March 14. With 74% of Washington County Greater District students vaccinated, she told OPB’s Think Out Loud that vaccinations are just one part of COVID-19 mitigation strategies that will remain even when the mask requirement will disappear.
The district also collected feedback from families on what they need to know regarding COVID mitigation efforts.
“It’s prime time for us, it’s to make sure that we’re doing it right and that we’re doing it in partnership with our public health department, and that we’re working with our families to make sure that they are fully informed as to what their choice means,” Rieke-Smith said.
The Umatilla school district in eastern Oregon is also moving to a mask-optional policy at the end of the state’s term. Superintendent Heidi Sipe told Think Out Loud her community is ready and informed about the changes.
“I’m excited that we’re moving forward in this area,” Sipe said.
“I think the thing I need to do as a leader now is really re-establish communication, strategy and education for families in our community, and how we work together to keep our children safe and make them learn. at school.”