PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — As students return to Oregon classrooms for another school year, health officials warn the threat of having to shut down schools and go back to distance learning is “real if we don’t all do our part” and slow the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Kate Brown, alongside state health and education officials, urged Oregonians on Tuesday to wear masks and get vaccinated as the highly transmissible delta variant continues to run rampant.
“It’s with mixed emotions that we are welcoming our kids back to school this year,”
Brown said. “I know many parents are excited for kids to return to the classroom full time, and at the same time anxious about the delta variant.”
Schools in Oregon first went remote in March 2020, and many didn't reopen their doors until a year later.
Dr. Dana Braner, physician-in-chief at Oregon Health & Science University children’s hospital, said he has never seen a mental health crisis among children the likes of which he is seeing daily.
“To return to in-person school is essential, not only for our children’s education, but for their physical and mental health as well,” Braner said.
Although the school year has just begun, a few Oregon schools have already had to close or delay their start due to student and staff quarantines because of COVID-19 cases, said Colt Gill Director of Oregon Department of Education.
“We all hold some responsibility for achieving a full-time in-person school year," Gill said. “The threat to losing school time or to moving back to online school is real. But I believe that we can do better.”
In an effort to decrease the spread of COVID-19 and increase vaccination rates in Oregon, Brown implemented a list of health and safety measures last month — including indoor and outdoor mask mandates and requiring state employees, health care workers and K-12 school staff to be fully vaccinated.
The Oregon Health & Science University is also offering free coronavirus weekly screenings for K-12 students. Currently, children younger than 12 are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition, on Tuesday the state's education department announced additional advisories, including that people in the school community and families with school aged children limit non-essential gatherings, that schools consider holding extracurricular activities outside and that large beginning of the school year events — such as open houses— be held online when possible.
"Our schools are places of learning and care and our kids need access again," Gill said. “This won’t be easy and it will take some sacrifice on the part of community to make this a reality for our children this school year.”
The rapid increase in COVID-19 cases — a majority of which are among unvaccinated people — is also overwhelming hospitals.
As of Tuesday, adult intensive care unit and hospital beds in the state were 91% full and 1,140 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19
“Our hospitals have reached the saturation point where health systems are not able to provide care to everyone arriving at their doors," said state Health Officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
However, the health authority's newest modeling offers some encouragement that the spread is slowing, conditioned upon more adult Oregonians getting vaccinated and following statewide safety mandates.
“The decisions we make over the next few weeks will determine whether we plunge deeper into this crisis of care," Sidelinger said. "Or, if we reverse this rising tsunami.”