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With school resuming soon, Oregon officials outline plans for COVID, monkeypox

Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority officials discussed COVID management plans at a news conference Wednesday.

SALEM, Ore. — The start of the new school year is just around the corner, and Oregon health and education officials are working to prepare parents and students to navigate the dual challenges of the COVID pandemic and the monkeypox outbreak.

State Health Officer and epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger and Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill held a news conference Wednesday afternoon to discuss the status of both health threats.

Oregon made it though the previous school year with only a few interruptions of in-person learning at a handful of schools, Gill said, and the priority in the coming year will continue to be making sure all students have consistent access to in-person instruction.

RELATED: Back-to-school with COVID-19 variants and monkeypox outbreaks

Oregon officials have pulled back on some safety measures such as contact tracing and quarantining students and staff in schools, Sidelinger said, and the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes a similar approach.

Most health and safety decisions will continue to be made by individual school districts and local health authorities, Gill said. State-level interventions such as mask mandates are unlikely, although Sidelinger stressed that individuals should still consider wearing masks indoors if they live with someone at high risk.

“I was very excited at what the CDC is encouraging all of us to do, and that's take personal responsibility,” said Ann Loeffler, deputy health officer for Multnomah County. Loeffler hopes the changes will benefit kids socially, emotionally and practically.

“The schools will not have the capacity to identify or track anybody who was exposed either in school or in their social settings, or ask anyone or insist that anyone mask," Loeffler continued, "but I'm hoping this is just the way our society will evolve; this will be good common sense, this is what we do for our community.”

The Department of Education has school planning documents available online, Gill said, plus a new resource called Oregon Classroom WISE, a suite of free print and video resources for adults and students to help cope with the mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Many school districts are excited for the new school year and hope it will bring them closer to normalcy.  

“The difference this school year is we're actually opening in person at the beginning of the school year,” said Steve Padilla, assistant director of public relations and partnerships for the Reynolds School District. “We still want parents to check their children before taking them to school and making sure they're not showing any signs or symptoms and if they are, keep them home.”

RELATED: Updated COVID-19 guidelines for Washington state K-12 schools, child care facilities

COVID infection rates remain elevated in Oregon, primarily due to the omicron BA.5 variant, but new cases and hospitalizations have both been trending downward for several weeks — although, Sidelinger added, the daily tally of new cases is likely an undercount.

Monkeypox cases are still rising in Oregon, Sidelinger said, but the virus is much harder to transmit than COVID and is unlikely to spread quickly in schools. Districts likely won't need to implement measures to slow the spread, he said, but they should have protocols in place to deal with the cases that do show up.

"We are asking schools to plan now for how they will support staff and students who may have prolonged times isolating at home while they recover," he said. Those plans also need to protect the privacy of the patients, he added.

RELATED: Oregon identifies its first pediatric case of monkeypox

Parents should be prepared to keep their kids home if they're sick, particularly if they develop a new rash. If a person with monkeypox is found to have attended school, any necessary response measures can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said.

U.S. health officials have been pushing for manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna to develop bivalent vaccines that target both the original COVID virus and BA.5. The new versions will hopefully roll out in the fall, Sidelinger said, but the Oregon Health Authority is still waiting on a timeline from federal officials.

In the meantime, he urged Oregonians to stay up to date on their first-round COVID vaccinations and boosters and make an effort to get flu shots when they become available, and to do the same for their children.

"OHA’s message to anyone who is eligible for a booster is simple — if you are eligible, get your booster now and do not wait until the fall," he said.

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