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Oregon health, education agencies: In-person classes at risk

January 4, 2022 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With masks stretched across their faces, students and faculty returned to schools across Oregon on Monday after the holidays, but state officials worry an unprecedented wave of COVID-19 will force a return to online learning.

Oregon reported more than 9,700 new cases of COVID-19 from the holiday weekend on Monday and smashed a previous record for weekly coronavirus cases with an average of about 2,400 new cases per day. The state also hit a single-day high for new cases on Thursday, with 3,534 confirmed or presumptive infections.

“Student access to in-person instruction is under serious threat,” the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority said Monday.

The highly contagious omicron variant has families worried as their kids return to school. In a Portland suburb, school nurses were overwhelmed with inquiries.

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“Due to the high volume of calls and emails they are experiencing, please expect a delayed response of up to 24 hours,” the Lake Oswego School District told parents in an email.

The state officials suggested schools suspend extracurricular activities or ensure they follow safety protocols. They also warned that rapid transmission of the omicron variant is expected in indoor settings where people don’t wear masks and follow other safety protocols, like maintaining physical distances and washing hands.

Monday marked the first day of classes after the Christmas holidays, though some schools remained closed because of a severe winter storm. Teachers worried that if the virus spreads rapidly, online classes would have to resume. Teaching online during the 2020-21 school year was challenging for both educators and students.

“We know our students learn best in-person, where they have access to other on-site critical services,” the state education and health departments said.

According to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, a COVID-19 surge driven by the omicron variant is expected to peak at the end of January with hospitalizations at about 1,650 people. Oregon hospitalizations peaked at 1,187 on Sept. 1 during the surge of infections from the delta variant.

The Oregon Health Authority also reported that 18.2% of COVID-19 tests administered over the long weekend were positive for the virus, the highest positivity rate seen in the state so far. Hospitalizations, however, hovered at 498 people, less than half the number at the previous peak. Eleven deaths were announced Monday. There are 60 adult intensive care unit beds available statewide.

Meanwhile, a statewide reading contest called the Oregon Battle of the Books announced it would hold its tournament online. The contest’s executive board called the decision painful but explained that the health of students and families is paramount and that, furthermore, venues to host the tournament are unable to take bookings due to COVID-19.

Schools may offer testing for the virus, and are about to increase that capacity with help from the state. The Oregon Health Authority announced last week that it has ordered 6 million COVID-19 rapid test kits, with each kit containing two tests. They will be distributed to local public health authorities and Native American tribes, agriculture workers, schools, health care workers and other sectors.

“We knew we had to be ready for future variants so we could continue to protect the most vulnerable in our communities while keeping our schools, businesses and communities open,” said Gov. Kate Brown.

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Flaccus reported from Lake Oswego, Oregon.