Experts weigh risks, rewards of reopening Oregon schools

Coronavirus

Upcoming special legislative session to include vote on COVID-19 liability protection for schools

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Educators and public health experts explored the risks and benefits of opening Oregon schools to in-person learning during a live webinar Wednesday night.

The two-hour-long discussion, a presentation by the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, covered a wide range of topics and addressed many of the community’s most pressing questions. It was part of their monthly panel discussions, Public Health Portland Style.

Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education, was among the five panelists who spoke to families watching from across the state. He talked about how those families and their children have been impacted by remote schooling and how the state can reopen safely.

“Our message nationwide is that it’s not yet safe to go to school and now we’re learning that it is and we need to make sure folks understand that and understand the reasons why,” said Gill.

Gill referenced a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a study conducted in schools in Mississippi. The study concluded that, compared with children who tested negative for the novel coronavirus, children who tested positive were more likely to have attended events like weddings and parties rather than child care or in-person schooling.

“[The research] basically says that schools are not super-spreader locations, that they are very safe, structured locations and maybe safer for our students and staff members to be there for six, eight hours a day than other places in the community,” said Gill.

Dr. B. Alex Foster, an assistant professor and pediatrician at OHSU, said the stress from the pandemic is going to remain with students for a long time to come.

“While adults have coping mechanisms, children — and we know this from both abusive situations but also from other natural disasters — they biologically embed that stress in their bodies,” Foster said.

Foster said the mental health issues he and other doctors are seeing are more intense than in past years.

“It’s incredibly sad,” he said. “Cases of children sort of just giving up and stopping eating, they don’t have a body image disorder like in terms of what you think about anorexia. They’ve just stopped eating.”

Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Dr. Lora De La Cruz was a part of the panel. She said she is far more concerned about the gap in wellbeing for students than the gap in academics.

“I just cannot emphasize enough that we are going to have to approach this through a healing-centered lens and a trauma-informed lens that is not only for our students but for our adults as well,” she said.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has called a one-day special session for December 21 in which lawmakers are expected to vote on COVID-19 liability protection for schools. Educational leaders say liability protection is essential for schools to safely resume in-person learning.

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