State support for easing requirements to allow in-person classes in Baker schools and other sparsely populated Eastern Oregon counties will be moot until the current uptick in COVID-19 cases ends.

Baker School Superintendent Mark Witty has been working with regional school and health department officials to show why smaller school districts shouldn’t be held to the same standards as more populated areas.

“I’m hopeful we’ve started a process and raised a flag,” Witty said of the changes that would better accommodate smaller schools.

Witty says it’s his impression that Gov. Kate Brown and leaders with the state Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority want to work with schools in the less populated areas of the state to tweak the metrics Brown announced last week that counties, and the state, would have to meet to allow in-person classes.

But looking at the daily number of new cases in Baker County, Witty doubts the Baker School District will meet any variance that might be granted.

Instead, classes in all Baker schools are expected to begin as comprehensive distance learning, Witty said.

The Baker School Board will meet in a special noon session Thursday via Zoom videostreaming to consider how to proceed as classes get underway on Sept. 8. District staff will present a plan for how instruction will be provided.

The District had planned to bring all students from K-6 back to school for in-person classes on the first day of the new year.

Those in Grades 7-12 were to be taught in a hybrid model that called for dividing the students into two cohort groups that would rotate between online and in-person study every other day in the four-day week.

But based on the metrics the governor announced July 28, Baker County’s recent weekly totals of new cases exceeds the standard for having any in-person classes, including a hybrid model.

Five new cases were reported in Baker County over the weekend, bringing the total number of cases to 34. Of those, 33 have been reported since June 30.

Under the metrics the governor announced, all counties would be held to the same standard, which is a maximum rate of new weekly cases of 10 per 100,000 population. For Baker County, that would mean in-person school would not be allowed for Grades 4-12 unless the county had no more than one new case per week for three straight weeks. The metrics also would prohibit in-person school in counties where the test positivity rate was 5% or higher for three straight weeks. The state positivity rate also must be less than 5% for three straight weeks. For the most recent week, ending Aug. 1, Oregon’s positivity rate was 6.1%.

The requirements are eased for students in Grades K-3, and for “rural and remote” school districts with 100 or fewer students, to 30 cases per 100,000 residents, no active spread of the coronavirus in the school community and a county test positivity rate of 5% or less. Based on the 30 per 100,000 metric, Baker County would qualify if it had four or fewer cases per week for three straight weeks.

In the regional group’s discussion with state school and health officials, “nobody was saying ‘no, no, no,’ ” Witty said. “We made our point very clear. These metrics don’t make sense in some of our cities.”

Eastern Oregon school and health authority leaders have asked the state to expand its exception for rural and remote districts to include those in counties with six or fewer residents per square mile. Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur and Wallowa counties fit that description.

All sides agree that all students, but especially those in Grades K-3, learn best through in-person education and that will be the goal for as much time as possible in the coming year, Witty said.

The regional group also noted that by not allowing in-person classes, the state is creating problems in the areas of child safety and mental health because of the scarcity of family services in remote areas. And lack of internet service should be considered in implementing variances, the regional group stated.

Witty said the group is hoping the state would allow rural areas to use a metrics range, to be determined by local health authorities through contact tracing, to determine whether the number of positive cases reported is contained in a family or other group that would not lead to community spread.

“For us, two cases is over the limit,” Witty said. “Unfortunately that’s not where we’ll be. At the current spread, it’s not likely we’re going to be back in school.”

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