PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Following Governor Brown’s announcement that school reopening decisions be made at the local level, the Oregon Department of Education has issued updated guidelines for the return of in-person instruction.

Brown returned the decision for operating schools in-person to the local level on January 1. ODE said the guidance provides local leaders with applicable resources to make informed decisions.

ODE and the Oregon Health Authority have updated advisory metrics aligned to recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute as well. The newly-adopted formulas allow for a return to in-person instruction for elementary students at higher levels of community case rates than previously recommended, according to ODE.

One new requirement calls for schools to provide on-site COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students and staff identified on campus — as well as those with known exposure to someone with COVID-19.

“We are providing school leaders with the information they need to make local decisions about returning to in-person instruction,” said ODE Director Colt Gill said Tuesday. “We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with access to an equitable education. Schools are a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services. This guidance provides new resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and better meet students’ needs in this time.”

Gill said the over 160 public health and safety protocols that were previously required will remain in place, including the six-foot distancing rule. And students may not have contact with more than 100 people per week. These will be imperative in successfully transitioning back to in-person learning.

“So as more districts determine that they want to make a move to return to in-person instruction the way that they are designing their systems to implement all the rules around face coverings and physical distancing and entry screening and sanitizing and making sure they have frequent hand washing — all of those become that much more critical,” he said.

With these protocols in place, Gill said schools will be able to maintain tight control over preventing the virus from spreading. Even if an infection occurs, staff will be well-equipped to take quick action. But even with these measures in place, reopening high schools remains a difficult challenge.

“First of all, high school students contract the disease and spread it to others at about the same levels as adults do so meaning it’s more infectious, it’s more challenging to control with older students,” said Gill. “And in high schools, the way that high schools are set up — unless they make some pretty dramatic changes — students end up interacting with a lot more individuals.”

Read the full update to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance

Gill explained that while a group of elementary school students can be limited to just one teacher, high school students have various classes taught by multiple teachers which increases the risk of spreading the virus to numerous people. The best way to move forward for reopening high schools, in Gill’s opinion, is to continue ramping up access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Some educators may be skeptical about the vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing the disease from spreading but Gill said that worry isn’t supported by science.

“I think part of this is getting information out to our teachers to help them understand what’s fact and what’s not,” he said.

ODE said the updated guidance takes effect immediately.

“As conditions change, our guidance will be updated so that we can continue serving the needs of our students,” the agency said.

State education officials engaged with nearly 2,000 school and community partners over the last two weeks, including Governor Brown’s Healthy Schools Reopening Council and Medical Advisory Panel, to inform this update.