Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett

Whether any Baker School District students are sitting in a classroom when the school year starts on Sept. 8, rather than sitting in front of a computer screen at home, could depend on how persuasive a new task force is.

Mark Bennett, a Baker County commissioner, is one of the 10 members of the group who are local officials in rural Oregon counties. Membership also includes several state officials, including Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist.

The task force’s name is rather long — Rural Schools Public Health Metrics Review Work Group.

But Bennett, who is also Baker County’s incident commander during the coronavirus pandemic, said the overriding goal, from his perspective, is simply expressed.

He wants to let county health departments and their medical advisers decide whether students in their counties, and at what grade levels, can safely return to their classrooms.

That would be decidedly different from the situation as it stands now.

Based on the metrics that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced July 28, there is no role for local officials in deciding whether to bring students back to classrooms.

Those metrics allow in-person classes only if individual counties, as well as the state, meet specific targets including the number of new virus cases weekly, and the rate of positive tests.

For most districts, including Baker, the metrics include a maximum weekly rate of new COVID-19 cases of 10 per 100,000 population. Baker County would have to meet that metric for three straight weeks for Baker Schools to qualify for any in-person classes.

The district’s proposal, announced last month, is to have in-person classes for students in grades K-6 four days per week, the schedule that’s been in effect for many years.

Students in grades 7-12 would be divided into two groups, with each group attending in-person classes two days per week and taking the same classes online the other two days.

Based on Baker County’s population of 16,134 (from the 2010 Census), the county would fail to meet the metric if it had two or more cases in any single week during that three-week period.

Two cases per week equates to a rate of 12.4 cases per 100,000 — exceeding the metric of 10 per 100,000.

In addition, Baker County would also have to have a case positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive — of 5% or below each week for three straight weeks.

But those two county metrics aren’t the only ones that would have to be met for Baker to allow any in-person classes.

The statewide case positivity rate would also have to be 5% or below each week for three straight weeks.

Based on current conditions, Baker would fail multiple metrics, and the school district would be required to have all students attend online classes only.

School officials across rural Oregon have asked state officials to consider a more flexible approach.

Mark Witty, Baker Schools superintendent, said last week that “we made our point very clear. These metrics don’t make sense in some of our cities.”

Those concerns prompted the creation of the work group late last week. Bennett said Baker County’s representatives in the state Legislature, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pushed to form the group. Members have had several remote meetings since, Bennett said.

He said that he and the other local officials who are members have urged the state to exempt rural districts from the statewide metric, arguing that it’s unfair to possibly punish schools in counties such as Baker for a high percentage of positive tests in, say, Multnomah County.

The statewide metric, as of today, would disqualify Baker schools from offering in-person classes because the most recent weekly case positivity rate was 6.1%.

But Baker would also fail to meet the county-specific metrics.

In the most recent week tallied, ending July 25, Baker County had nine new COVID-19 cases. That equates to a rate of 55.8 per 100,000 population, well above the metric’s limit of 10.

The county hasn’t had three straight weeks with a case positivity rate of 5% or below since June.

Bennett said his goal, and it’s an idea he said the work group has discussed at length, is to exempt rural districts such as Baker from the county metrics and instead allow county health departments and medical advisers to decide how schools can proceed.

Those local officials would still use the COVID-19 case numbers and case positivity rates in their deliberations, Bennett said. The difference is that they would be allowed to analyze those data and decide whether the overall situation in the county would allow at least some students to safely return to their classrooms.

As a hypothetical, Bennett noted that Baker schools could not allow any in-person classes if Baker County had as few as two new cases in one week.

But if the county health department’s investigators determined that both those cases were members of one household, and that they had no direct contact with a student or school district staff member, those two positive cases might not justify banning the school district from offering some in-person classes, Bennett said.

He said he has complete confidence that the Baker County Health Department and the county’s medical review team, led by county health officer Dr. Eric Lamb, if allowed to decide on the matter of in-person classes, would make responsible decisions.

“I feel really comfortable that they will always be on the side of protecting the students, school staff and the community,” Bennett said.

He said the task force has focused on the issue of giving county officials authority that they lack under the metrics-based system the governor announced.

Bennett said the finer details of what that might mean for individual counties or districts ultimately depends on whether the governor agrees.

For instance, he said it’s impossible to say whether Baker School District might be able to roll out its plan of completely in-person classes for K-6 and the half-time, hybrid model for grades 7-12, or whether it might even be feasible to allow students at all levels to be in classrooms every day.

Bennett said he will learn more when the task force meets this morning.

He expects state officials to announce early next week whether the original metrics will be changed, or whether the governor will agree to let county officials make decisions about schools.

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