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State reports virus cases at more than 50 Central Oregon schools

Students and staff have tested positive for the virus in nearly every school district in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, according to the latest report.

BEND, Ore. — The Oregon Health Authority has reported coronavirus cases at more than 50 Central Oregon schools in the last couple weeks.

Students and staff have tested positive for the virus in nearly every school district in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, according to the weekly outbreak report.

The report also listed three schools in Deschutes County with active outbreaks, which the health authority defines as two or more cases in students, staff or volunteers that have a shared, defined exposure within a school setting.

Twelve cases were tied to Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge in Bend; three cases were reported at Tom McCall Elementary in Redmond, and 11 cases at Redmond High School.

School districts say the cases are not unexpected, and that prevention measures have helped to mitigate spread in schools.

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Sheila Miller, a spokeswoman for Redmond School District, said that while the school district has seen cases in each of its schools, very few have been the result of contact within the schools. She said when the school district learns of illnesses, they contact trace and quarantine people as necessary.

“We haven’t seen anything that particularly concerns us or is unexpected — the masks, vaccinations and other measures (social distancing, etc.) seem to be doing the necessary work to prevent cases from spreading in our buildings,” Miller said.

She said school nurses have been busy handling virus cases, but that the spread has more to do with a statewide surge in virus cases coinciding with the start of school. No other information about the outbreaks at Tom McCall Elementary and Redmond High School was immediately available.

Oregon National Guard Youth Challenge, a residential alternative high school that takes students from all over the state, initiated its outbreak protocol in August after a staff member and student tested positive for the virus in one week, said Deputy Director Frank Tallman.

Tallman said a staff member who was exposed outside of work and did not know it tested positive on Aug. 19. A student then became sick on Aug. 23.

Tallman said those infected, along with their cohorts, were isolated and that testing has been conducted weekly. He put the outbreak at 13 cases, adding that there have been no new cases since Sept. 20.

Tallman said the program’s strict screening and testing protocols were crucial in helping identify the spread early on.

Deschutes County Health Services is encouraging students 12 and older to get vaccinated against the virus, and encouraging parents to take precautions like wearing masks when around people they don’t live with and staying home when sick.

“With high rates of community transmission, Public Health expected to see similar trends amongst school-aged children and teens,” Morgan Emerson, a spokeswoman for the county’s health services said via email. “To help mitigate cases and outbreaks, Public Health staff have worked closely with local schools to implement prevention measures.”

She said the county is also encouraging families to schedule their flu shots as flu season nears.

Bend-La Pine Schools, Central Oregon’s largest school district, reported 68 students and 11 staff members in isolation and 102 students in quarantine between Sept. 18 and Sept. 23.

Julianne Repman, the district’s director of safety and communication, said riding in cars unmasked, eating in groups without social distancing, sleepovers and other unmasked activities in groups in the community appear to be leading exposure areas.

“Thanks to the dedication of all to ensure good mitigation — mask wearing, distancing, vaccinations, handwashing encouragement, etc. at our schools and work sites — the number of students quarantined due to positive case contact remains low, thanks to contact tracers running leads to the ground,” Repman said.

Since the start of school, more than 90 students and five staff members in the Crook County School District have been quarantined.

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Jason Carr, the district’s communications director, said that quarantine decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and that closing schools or quarantining whole classrooms may occur when school nurses or the county’s health department are concerned enough that cases are either connected or a substantial amount of students who spend time together become ill and test positive.

Carr said all 25 students attending Paulina School, a rural school east of Prineville, were quarantined.

“That decision was made out of an abundance of caution since all the students interact daily given the size of the school,” Carr said. “Several students tested positive or were presumptive positive given symptoms, which elevated the concern and led to the decision to quarantine.”

He said all students will return on Oct. 4. No other schools or classrooms have been quarantined.

“Our quarantine numbers and positive cases generally track with infection rates in the community,” he added. “Most students or staff who end up testing positive are mainly exposed at home by other family members. None of our sports teams have had outbreaks or missed out on practices or games due to positive cases. Individual students have been quarantined but not entire teams.

“Based on data from St. Charles Health System, we believe we’re currently right in the peak of cases, which means we’ll probably continue to see a consistent flow of quarantines and positives for a few more weeks,” he said. “We are hopeful cases begin trending downward by the middle or end of October.”

Joseph Prechtl, a spokesman for Jefferson County School District, said the first few weeks of school are going better than expected with virus mitigation measures.

“Our staff and students are acquiring COVID-19 from outside the schools,” he said. “We have had very minimal spread within the buildings.”