It’s official.

Baker students will return to their studies on Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.

What form those studies will take, however, is yet to be decided.

The Baker School Board agreed in a special noon meeting Thursday to approve Superintendent Mark Witty’s plan to add four days of training to help staff members learn more about the District’s new technology system and recently approved English/language arts curriculum. They’ll also be preparing for hygiene and social distancing protocols aimed at keeping the staff and students safe from the coronavirus when in-person instruction resumes.

That probably won’t be when school starts Sept. 8, however, Witty said.

He alerted the Board Thursday that despite the extra training days built into the calendar and the delayed start for students, who were originally due to begin classes Aug. 31, in-person classes probably will be delayed.

The Board will hear more from Witty on the issue during another special meeting set for noon Thursday, Aug. 5, on how to proceed in light of the requirements for offering in-person classes that Gov. Kate Brown announced on Tuesday.

Those could make it difficult for Baker to offer in-person classes, especially for grades 4-12.

The requirements aren’t as strict for students in grades K-3, who Brown says studies have shown are less likely to contract and spread the coronavirus.

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

Those in Grades 7-12 were to be taught from the start 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 throughout the four-day week.

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

“Our metrics today are pretty clear,” Witty said. “Under the current guidelines, we’re doing comprehensive distance learning.”

At the Aug. 5 noon meeting, which will be conducted remotely by Zoom,Witty will present more information and ask the Board for its decision on the issue.

To be able to offer any in-person classes for grades 4-12, a district must be in a county that has a new case rate of 10 per 100,000 population or less for three straight weeks, and a test positivity rate of 5% or below for three straight weeks. In addition, the overall Oregon positivity rate has to stay below 5% for three straight weeks.

For Baker County, more than one positive case per week would prevent in-person school from taking place under the current metrics.

The requirement for having in-person classes for grades K-3 is 30 cases for 100,000 population or less for three straight weeks.

Witty presented a chart comparing seven rural Oregon counties that would be held to the same standards as Oregon’s most populous counties on the western side of the state.

Harney County, for example, is the state’s largest county by area with 10,133 square miles, and has less than one person (0.7) per square mile. Under the current metrics, Harney County, which as of Friday had recorded eight positive cases, could not have even one person test positive in a week and still qualify to have in-person classes. Harney County has 10 separate schools or districts.

In seeking change in the statewide system, Witty showed a draft presentation that regional representatives plan to share with state leaders in the hope of prompting more flexibility for rural counties.

On Thursday, Witty discussed the presentation with the Board. Among other points, the paper points out that the long distances between communities in rural counties make it difficult for residents to interact.

“This needs to be taken into consideration when calculating the threat of community spread,” the presentation states.

The regional group would propose, instead, that local health officials be given authority to set the metrics for an area based on their firsthand experience and knowledge of their counties.

Witty said officials from the governor’s office and the Oregon Department of Education are willing to look at making changes.

“Folks are working with us and are attempting to come up with strategies that make sense, especially for frontier counties,” Witty said.

“We too have a responsibility,” he said. “We want to keep our students, staff and families safe. But this metric of one size fits all, doesn’t quite fit Baker County.”

Witty asked the Board for guidance about how to proceed. He said he envisions comprehensive distance learning in a block of six to nine weeks when classes get underway. As coronavirus trends are analyzed, a move to in-person school might be possible at that time.

Witty said he would expect staff to be in their buildings during the all-online learning model.

“I’ve told the union that one of the things I’m going to require is that you’re in your class,” he said, adding that the full breadth of availability to the new technology equipment is accessed from the classrooms.

“We’ve got to have really good expectations with students, families and staff and accountability measures built in,” Witty said.

Food service and child care also will be two major components of the new school year.

“It’s definitely part of our strategy to be able to offer child care to our employees as well as to essential workers,” Witty said.

Board members agreed that plans should be finalized as quickly as possible for the benefit of the community’s children and families.

“I like the idea of getting another week of information,” said director Julie Huntington. “From my perspective, kids need routine and they need to know what’s expected of them. They just don’t adapt well to everything being up in the air.”

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