Masked child in a classroom
The Oregon Education Department and the Oregon Health Authority say districts no longer need to contact trace in situations where students might have been exposed to someone with Covid-19 at school but were masked. (Photo by Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

New guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education could end contract tracing when a student tests positive and was in close proximity to other students as long as all were wearing masks. 

In an email sent Friday, the director of the state Education Department, Colt Gill, advised schools that they would not be expected to investigate any potential student exposures to COVID-19 unless they occurred in situations in which students weren’t wearing masks, such as in cafeterias, in band classes and in some athletic classes or while practicing sports. 

This move means students that wear masks at school and their families will not get a call from a school official, investigating the infection. Until now, officials have interviewed students, trying to trace the source of the infection to prevent it from spreading further. Gill said the change will ease the burden on school officials, at a time when the omicron variant is widespread across the state, causing about 8,000 cases a day in Oregon.

But under the new guidance, officials will only investigate a case  if the infected student was around peers who weren’t masked.

Gill told school administrators in the email that “the vast majority of transmission has occurred following indoor unmasked contact.” He said few infections have stemmed from classroom situations in which students are masked. 

Right now, all students, staff and volunteers have to wear masks at school. They’re only allowed to take them off while eating in the cafeteria, during band practice if they play an instrument such as a trumpet or trombone or sing, or while playing sports and in some athletic classes. Students and staff are still expected to maintain a distance of 3 to 6 feet in schools when possible. Scientists say that the 6-feet advice is not enough to prevent transmission of omicron, which appears to be the most infectious variant of the novel coronavirus yet.

School staff and students can report positive cases to the Health Authority’s Case Support Hotline at 866-917-8881 or Positive COVID Test website.

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