On Tuesday, some elementary school students in Prineville will do something that no Central Oregon public school student has done since March — learn inside a school building.
But lessons will look different for these students in grades K-3 than it did before COVID-19.
They’ll eat lunch in their classroom, not the cafeteria. Everyone will wear a face covering. And each student, along with all school staffers, will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before entering the building every day.
Being careful will take time, Superintendent Sara Johnson told The Bulletin.
“Everything takes a little longer, because you’re having to do all of the precautions that are necessary to operate during COVID,” she said.
Still, Johnson is excited to bring students back into classrooms for the first time in nearly half a year, she said. She’s also proud of Crook County for keeping COVID-19 cases low enough to allow for this reopening.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Johnson said of reopening. “Obviously, people out there have been very careful and working hard to make sure we’re not spreading (COVID-19).”
To bring back K-3 students, the state requires a county to have 30 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of less than 5% for three straight weeks.
Crook County passed those metrics, with 21 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents for the past four weeks — including zero cases during the week of Aug. 23. The county also had a test positivity rate hovering around 1% for the past three weeks, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
To bring back all students, a county must have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents, plus the entire state’s test positivity rate must be below 5% for three straight weeks. Oregon’s test positivity rate dipped below 5% for the first time since June during the week of Aug. 23, but that number must hold for two more weeks.
There are more lenient rules for schools in small-population counties, like Crook, with 250 students or fewer. A few Crook County School District schools, including Pioneer Secondary Alternative School and one-room elementary schools in Paulina and Brothers, will reopen under those exceptions.
As of Tuesday, Crook County School District is the only school district in Central Oregon planning to bring K-3 students back into classrooms on the first day of school. There were more than 950 students enrolled in those four grades in Crook County schools last school year.
Deschutes County’s COVID-19 numbers are also low enough to allow K-3 students back into classrooms. The county has had fewer than 20 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents for three straight weeks, and a test positivity rate below 2% for that time.
But none of Deschutes County’s three school districts — Bend-La Pine, Redmond and Sisters — had announced plans to bring back K-3 students as of Tuesday.
Jefferson County still has some of the highest COVID-19 numbers in the state, with 80 cases per 100,000 residents. That number has fallen dramatically since the county’s mid-July peak of 247 cases per 100,000 residents, but the county is still far away from reopening classrooms.
In Crook County’s three Prineville elementary schools — Barnes Butte, Crooked River and the brand new Steins Pillar — students will stick to confined groups as much as possible, Johnson said. Classrooms will have fewer students in them than normal. And instead of sending half the school to recess at the same time, students will be released in small groups, she said.
Even something as simple as students lining up to leave a classroom — an elementary school staple — will look different this fall, as there will be 6 feet between each student, Johnson said.
“Theoretically, we’d say a (normal) classroom line will be 20-25 feet long, and now they’ll be 144 feet,” she said. “It just looks different.”
If Steins Pillar Elementary — a K-4 magnet school expected to enroll about 175 students this fall in downtown Prineville — didn’t open this fall, the other two Prineville elementary schools likely couldn’t reopen for K-3 students, Johnson said. The new school is opening primarily to solve capacity issues at Prineville’s other two elementary schools.
“If we had not opened (the new school), we would not have space to open K-3, because we wouldn’t have the 35 square feet per student,” said Johnson, referring to a state social-distancing mandate.