FILE - Virus Outbreak Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a news conference to announce a four-week ban on eat-in dining at bars and restaurants throughout the state Monday, March 16, 2020, in Portland, Ore. 

(The Center Square) — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced on Thursday that new updates to the state’s health metrics could send thousands more students back to classrooms.

Under Brown’s prior set of metrics, schools could reopen only if the state saw a 5% COVID-19 positivity rate for three weeks straight or if corresponding counties saw positivity rates of 5% and case rates of 10 per 100,000 residents over the same time period.

The metrics released on Thursday eliminate the statewide 5% threshold and knocks down the required three-week period to a two-week period.

Brown said these new standards may offer smaller communities less impacted by the pandemic more opportunities to reopen schools.

Brown stressed that the new metrics still prioritize the importance of lowering case counts.

“My top priority has been and will always be the health and safety of Oregonians,” Brown said. “When we temporarily closed Oregon schools, we knew it was going to be an incredible interruption in each student’s education.”

To date, the state had allowed special needs students to attend classes for in-person instruction while the vast majority of the state’s students are learning from home online.

The metrics updates take effect immediately and, based on this week’s data points, could allow 100,000 students to return to some in-person instruction.

Oregon Health Authority Deputy State Health Officer and Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Jeanne suggested that very young children may be at lower risk of spreading of the virus.

“At the time of the original metric, evidence suggested kids of K–3 ages might be at a lower risk for transmitting COVID-19, but newer evidence suggests this may not be the case, Jeanne said. “However, younger children still appear to have less severe illness than older children and adults.”

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill warned that reopening schools will depend on whether the public can do its part to reduce Oregon’s case rates.

Since the state’s metrics were first issued in August, the OHA has recommended people wear face masks rather than face shields, except for when communicating with the deaf or hard of hearing who may need to read lips.

Face coverings are also required in indoor and outdoor markets, street fairs, and universities.

This week alone the OHA reported two consecutive days of record high daily case counts including 600 on Thursday.

The statewide COVID-19 case count stands at 43,793 and the death toll at 673.

Health officials reported 575 new cases of COVID-19 in Oregon on Thursday, the highest daily case count in the state since the start of the pandemic.

Of those cases 550 cases last Friday, 135 were reported in Multnomah County where schools remain closed. The county remains in Phase 1 of reopening and was placed back onto Gov. Brown’s COVID-19 “Watch List” of high-risk counties last week. It joins Malheur, Lane, and Umatilla counties.

The daily case count record was previously set one week ago when health officials reported 550 new cases in Oregon.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.