The progress made towards holding in-person classes within Greater Albany Public Schools was washed out this week after at least 19 students attended a gathering without masks, spurring new COVID-19 cases.

According to GAPS Superintendent Melissa Goff, at least three positive cases have been traced to a large gathering in a local home with approximately 19 students from West Albany High School, South Albany High School and Lebanon High School.

“In addition to the large gathering, a number of the same individuals have been together since then,” Goff said. “So we have an additional six students who should be quarantining right now.”

The families of the students have been contacted by local health authorities but according to Goff, some families may not be cooperating with efforts to trace the potential outbreak.

“We understand that public health has struggled to get information from some of the families, which is compounding the situation,” she said.

Prior to the latest positive cases, GAPS was holding limited in-person instruction for students who receive special services while monitoring the increasing case load around the county. A total of 142 students at 14 district sites were receiving instruction in-person.

Those services have been paused and all teachers and staff who are able to work from home, have been asked to do so by the district.

On Monday, GAPS announced that it now has seen contacts or cases at 13 of its 21 sites and there are six sites with active cases or exposure concerns.

GAPS cited privacy laws in its inability to release case numbers or details but did note cases have been discovered among staff and/or students at Liberty, Meadow Ridge, Oak Grove, Periwinkle, Tangent, Waverly, Calapooia, Memorial, North Albany Middle School, South Albany High School, West Albany High School and Albany Options School.

The largest outbreak was at a Deschutes County private school, where three students and four staffers tested positive.

“Until we feel confident that we know of all positive cases and exposures, we will be keeping all campuses closed to limited in-person learning, athletics and activities,” Goff said. “This is a drastic yet necessary step at this time. We will continue to monitor the situation to see if there are opportunities to bring students back to school.”

Last week, GAPS said it was exploring bringing students back to in-person learning in the weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving or between Thanksgiving and winter break. But due to increasing case numbers across Linn and Benton County, in-person instruction seemed unlikely.

The state, not the school district, has set metrics in place that counties must meet to allow students back to school. To allow all students K-12 back into classrooms, the state must see a positivity rate at or below 5%–meaning that no more than 5% of the people tested for COVID-19 tested positive for three consecutive weeks.

To allow K-3 students back into classes, counties that have fewer than 30 new cases per 100,000 can apply for an exception from the state. In the last four weeks, Linn County has seen 53, 104, 48 and 71 new cases. Neither Linn or Benton has met the necessary metrics to allow in-person classes since the metrics were put in place this summer.

“This is so sad for me, for our school leaders, our staff including teachers and most importantly for our students,” Goff said of the rising cases. “We are moving in the wrong direction, away from getting our students back in schools and we are wholly dependent on the Albany community to work together to bring down our cases. Please join us in masking up, socially distancing and practicing healthy hygiene.”

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