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What happens when students and staff are exposed to COVID-19 in Oregon?

Exposure to COVID is inevitable in school communities, but many districts in Oregon say they have well-laid plans for when they happen to try to keep schools open.

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. — Thousands of kids and staff returned to classrooms last week, as COVID-19 surged in Oregon. Lake Oswego's back-to-school plans were already thrown off after dozens were exposed to COVID on a school bus.

Cases are inevitable but many districts in Oregon say they have plans for when they happen. Although, the delta variant and recent surge do present a major challenge to schools that had prepared for fall to look different.

Districts say they had planned for less masks indoors and outdoors through most of the summer. They also planned for people's vaccination status to make a difference in how they operate.

The first bell just rang and already 47 people from Hallinan Elementary School in Lake Oswego are stuck at home.

"We were notified over the weekend of an individual in school who was diagnosed with COVID," Lake Oswego School District spokesperson Mary Kay Larson said, "We immediately started doing contact tracing."

The district found the person who tested positive last went to school on Sept. 1 and Sept. 2. No additional close contacts were identified on campus. 

All those exposed to COVID on the students' four bus rides over those two days are considered "close contacts" and have to quarantine for at least 10 days.

Larson said to the district's knowledge, no one else has tested positive.

"We immediately kicked into our exposure protocols," Larson said.

For Lake Oswego, those exposure protocols are as follows:

  • The school nurse gets notified after the person tests positive. 
  • They work with administrators and teachers to identify close contacts and meet with public health officials to figure out who needs to quarantine. 
  • Close contacts are notified and asked to isolate if needed. 
  • If they're fully vaccinated and don't have symptoms, they don't need to quarantine. 
  • Then, the principal tells the school community about exposure.

Lake Oswego also has an outline online for when students, staff or entire classes must quarantine. For example, the plan includes teachers and students using asynchronous online learning platforms, keeping in close communication and learning materials and activities given to individual students.

Lake Oswego students have been in classrooms for months through limited in-person instruction and hybrid learning.

"Much of these protocols we're talking about have been in place since then so we have a lot of practice with it. The two new dynamics for us are lunch and recess," Larson added.

RELATED: Yes, Oregon teachers and students will have to quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19

Hillsboro School District spokesperson Beth Graser said the district has a similar protocol:

  • Families, staff members or Washington County Public Health notify the district if someone tests positive.
  • District nurses and contact tracers work with the family/staff member to determine whether or not they were on campus or around other students or staff within 48 hours of onset of symptoms.
  • If so, they investigate whether there were any potential close contacts. The district calls those people with follow-up instructions
  • Other students/staff members who may be in the same classroom, cohort or team will get a “heads-up” letter from the school letting them know of potential exposure.

Graser says the whole staff in a school will be notified regardless but how many families are notified is "dependent upon the extent of the exposure". 

"So far we have not had to, for example, quarantine entire classrooms or cohorts of students. So far we've been able to just do the heads-up and then people monitor for their own symptoms," Graser told KGW. "We have not seen a lot of evidence of school-based spread. The cases we’ve had ... those have proven to have occurred from situations and contacts outside the school system. It remains to be seen how that'll unfold this year."

Although school has already started Hillsboro is still working with the teachers' union to finalize its remote learning plan for quarantined students. 

"Regardless, students will be able to access the lessons they may miss because of being ill or quarantined," Graser said, referring to students being able to access learning through Google Classroom. "The format of those lessons has potential implications to teachers’ workload, and we are currently finalizing the memorandum of understanding with our teachers’ union."

When talking about exposure, the official term "close contact"  gets tricky. You're a close contact when you're within six feet of someone with COVID for more than 15 minutes over the course of day. 

RELATED: Portland Public Schools is down 86 bus drivers. Here's what we know about the bus driver shortage

But this summer health officials changed the definition for kids in the K-12 classroom setting. Students aren't considered close contacts if they're within three to six feet of someone with COVID and they consistently wore masks and other prevention measures were in place. This doesn't apply to adults.

Local public health leaders say they have a harder time tracking those close contacts now.

"With the very high levels of cases we have in the community public health is not able to follow up with every single case," Clackamas County Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present said. "We really need to work together with the schools to ensure that everybody knows when there's a case and how to quarantine and isolate yourself. 

"I want everybody in school communities to take some responsibility of staying home when you're sick, keeping your children home if they're exposed and have not been vaccinated, alerting your school nurse or administrator if there's someone ill in your household or you're concerned about your child being ill," Dr. Present added.

While districts have protocols to try to stop the virus from spreading in schools, it's on every one of us to keep them open.

"What we do outside in our community greatly impacts the success we have in keeping students in school full time," Larson said.

Dr. Present said to keep schools open during the delta surge, we need to prioritize the educational aspect of school. She recommends doing so by limiting gatherings and potentially limiting sports and extracurricular activities that "aren't necessary".

She advises more masking and physical distancing during athletic practices.

Across the country more schools are closing due to COVID. Data from Burbio, an organization tracking school disruptions, shows COVID has closed or delayed the start of several schools in rural parts of Oregon. 

They're among about 1,400 schools in 35 states. It's important to note: that's only a small fraction of schools in America.