Parents tuning in Wednesday night for a Zoom livestream meeting to learn more about when their children might return to in-person elementary school classes this month learned that it will be at least 2 days later than earlier announced.
The possible opening date is Oct. 14 rather than Oct. 12, Superintendent Mark Witty announced during a video meeting with more than 60 people during a session that lasted about an hour and a half.
The reason for that delay is logistics, Witty said.
The Oregon Health Authority collects information about the number of COVID-19 cases in each county weekly, said Nancy Staten, Baker County Health Department director. Local health department officials then notify the schools of the number for the preceding week at the beginning of that next week.
“It became clear we would have to start on Wednesday, Oct. 14, to know by Monday (Oct. 12) if we meet the metrics,” Witty said.
Staten said that on Sept. 6 there were 12 cases reported, then just one case on Sept. 13 and four on Sept. 20.
With the Sept. 27 report yet to come, five cases had been reported as of Wednesday night, Sept. 30, Staten said.
For Baker elementary students to return to full-day in-person classes on Oct. 14, District officials must review with health department officials the county’s positive cases of the coronavirus to be reported to schools on Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and Oct. 12, to determine if the numbers are within the guidelines.
Under a revised metrics developed by the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority for rural schools in sparsely populated areas such as Baker County, students may return to in-person classes if the local health department officials determine there is no community spread of the coronavirus.
The health department also must report 30 or fewer total cases of COVID-19 over a 3-week period, with less than half of the cases occurring in the most recent week.
In addition, students must be able to attend classes in stable student cohort groups of 50 or fewer.
That group limit is the reason Baker students in Grades 7-12 will not be able to attend in-person classes even if younger students do, Witty said. That might change if he and others can — as they did earlier in securing changes in the metrics for rural remote schools — persuade the state to increase the cohort size to at least 100, Witty said.
The smaller cohort size works at the elementary level because those students remain in their classrooms and will be kept separated from students in other classes, Witty said. Some speciality staff members even have been reassigned as classroom teachers to keep class sizes at suitable levels, he said.
At the upper grade levels, however, students rotate through seven periods per day and have varied schedules based on their individual courses, Witty said. While there is a possibility of expanding options for some in-person instruction, a full return to classes would not be possible unless the cohort size is increased.
“We hope some consideration will be given to having a larger cohort level,” Witty told his online audience.
“ODE (Oregon Department of Education) is looking at shifting the level and we can advocate and point out challenges as they exist,” he said.
Staten explained how the schools will help the health department conduct contact tracing should students test positive for the coronavirus once in-person school resumes at the elementary level.
There will be a daily entrance log for every classroom, tracking the entry and exit of students in each cohort.
If a student tests positive, Baker County Health Department staff will conduct an interview and identify close contacts. Staten said a close contact is defined as anyone who has been within 6 feet of the person who tested positive for the illness for 15 minutes or more. The time limit is cumulative, Staten said. For example, the close contact can take place for 10 minutes one time and 5 more minutes later, not just in one incident.
As the contact tracing continues, the health department calls those who may have been exposed and provides information about how to prevent spreading the virus and how to quarantine for a given time period.
The school and health department will maintain communication on the process, she said. Support will be provided to help those who might develop symptoms know what to do and to provide resources for those in quarantine or isolation, Staten said.
As of Thursday there had been 100 cases in Baker County. Of those, 38 are considered recovered.
Phil Anderson, Brooklyn Primary principal, addressed the health protocols that will be in place to help keep students and staff well.
Parents are asked to keep their children at home if they have “primary symptoms” of a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher and are experiencing chills, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.
He asked parents to provide face coverings for their children if possible. Some will be available at the school as well, he said.
If parents are called to come to the school to take a sick child home during the day, he asked that they respond quickly. And he asked that parents report any symptoms their child might be experiencing. He also asked that families follow the Oregon Health Authority safety guidelines outside the school environment as well, including wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands regularly.
The schools will screen children before they enter the building, Anderson said. They will require face coverings for all students and staff and isolate children who are sick with primary symptoms.
Those who are not feeling well, but have other health complaints such as runny noses, headaches or stomachaches will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, he said.
The school also will work to ensure small, stable cohorts, practice frequent handwashing and sanitizing, daily cleaning and follow all OHA guidelines.
Katy Collier, Haines Elementary principal, detailed arrival and dismissal routines for families.
Schools will announce building-specific arrival times and identified areas where each grade level will enter.
Staff will be stationed at the entry points to check temperatures and ask health-related questions of each child. Arrivals will be noted on daily entrance logs.
Students who are late for school will be screened at the office and given a slip to proceed to class. Teachers will note late arrivals on the daily entrance log.
Collier said dismissals will be staggered and schools will notify parents about building-specific times and identified pickup areas where each grade level will exit. Grade levels and transportation modes also will be staggered.
In response to online questions about student interaction, Anderson said staff will strive to keep the children 6 feet apart even during recess through the use of games that require them to maintain their distance.
“This will be a constant conversation we’ll be having with kids,” he said. “But we’ll be prioritizing ways to still make sure our school days are fun.”
And although students must wear masks while they are indoors, Collier said masks will not be required when they are outdoors for PE and recess.
“That’s all the more reason we’re going to try to get kids outside as much as possible,” she said.
In response to another online question about whether children would be required to be seen by a doctor every time they have a cold or runny nose before being cleared to return to school, Dr. Eric Lamb, Baker County health officer, noted that the resolution to those types of scenarios will not be simple.
“This is going to be a complicated problem as we enter the cold and flu season, determining what is a cough, a plain old cold, flu or coronavirus,” he said. “It’s complicated and it’s going to be difficult for all of us.”
He noted that if parents determine their child is responding in the normal way because of asthma or seasonal colds, they should first check with their primary care provider before returning the child to school.
“Once the provider says this is not a COVID-19 case, the child can go back to school,” Lamb said. “We respect the clinical judgement of the provider with or without the coronavirus.”
Another person noted that La Grande is reopening its schools for Grades K-3 on Monday, Oct. 5. Witty explained that Union County is under a different set of metrics and different logistics that allow the District to make that decision.
“It all makes sense based on the metrics of each individual county,” Witty said Thursday. “I’m hoping and praying we can meet those metrics and get K-6 back to in-person classes.”
Witty said the elementary schools will be prepped, ready and awaiting the word from the health department on Monday, Oct. 12, about whether those students can return to full-time, in-person classes on Oct. 14.
Parents will be kept informed through the ParentSquare communication system and building-level meetings with more information from each school are scheduled in the coming week, he said.
Witty also will continue to work to secure the same in-person school option for students in Grades 7-12, he said.
“We certainly want to be in-person as soon as we can manage,” he said.