Mark Witty did something Thursday that he hadn’t done for the past three weeks.
He stepped away from his office for an hour-long lunch break.
As anyone who’s spent much time around the Baker School District superintendent can testify, he’s a busy man. And while he says it’s not unusual for administrators to eat lunch at their desks, Witty acknowledges he has been more deskbound than usual this month.
“It is a bit of a blur,” Witty said of the early morning to late night schedule he’s worked under since schools were put on alert to prepare for the coronavirus about three weeks ago as it began moving through the Northwest.
Gov. Kate Brown announced on March 12 that instead of the usual week-long spring break, schools would be closed from March 16 through March 31. Then came Brown’s March 17 order closing schools through April 28.
Witty and his administrative staff have been meeting daily since to plan ways to help ease the burden of students and families affected by the closures and to find ways to ensure that educational instruction continues.
“I’ve just been in a two-hour meeting with the leadership team today developing tentative plans for reaching out to families,” Witty said Thursday in a telephone interview.
Administrators meet in the north conference room at the District Office.
“Each staff member has a table that is sanitized,” Witty said. “We practice social distancing and sanitization.”
Administrators are prepared to adjust as things change.
“We’re developing tentative plans for reaching out to families within the next 48 hours by (school) principals,” Witty said.
He ticked off a short list of some of the work in progress, including developing a plan, as directed by the governor, to provide child care for the county’s emergency responders and health care workers.
Breakfasts and lunches will continue to be handed out curbside at schools, with Keating being added beginning Monday. Also beginning Monday, hot meals will be provided at noon and a breakfast for the next day will be delivered at the same time. (See related information on Page 2A).
A total of 320 children 18 and younger were served Wednesday, Witty said, and the numbers have been increasing by 30 to 40 daily.
The District is prepared to serve as many children as necessary in the coming days to help ease the burden of families in financial distress and to ensure that young people do not go hungry, he said. They do not need to attend Baker schools to join the meal program. And participants may pick up food at the school most conveniently located to their homes.
Instructional programs are at the core of the discussions. Witty said administrators will meet with certified staff, including teachers, on March 30 as plans move forward. Roles for classified employees also will be determined in the coming weeks.
“We’re going to get more guidance from (the Oregon Department of Education, ODE) by the end of the week or the first part of next week about what education will look like — including special education, counseling services and Wi-Fi,” Witty said.
Graduation requirements for seniors and testing procedures also will be discussed.
Witty said he will meet on a conference call with the ODE staff at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays so that he can have high quality information as quickly as possible.
In a message that went out to District staff Thursday, Witty outlined plans for the mandatory March 30 meeting for certified employees, some of whom will gather in the morning by grade level and area of expertise at staggered 30-minute periods in elementary and middle school libraries. Baker High School staff will attend a virtual morning meeting with BHS principal Greg Mitchell and assistant principal Chelsea Hurliman.
Thomas Joseph, principal of Eagle Cap Innovative High School, will meet with his staff to schedule online learning programs for their students. And special ed and counseling staff will meet the afternoon of March 30 with Barry Nemec, special ed director, and Silas Turner, BHS guidance counselor.
In his letter to the staff, Witty reminded the District employees of their blessings — and their obligations — going forward. Witty wrote that in his visit with Brent Kerns Thursday, the Baker Justice Court judge told him that as of Saturday 600 employees will have been laid off throughout the community as a result of the statewide measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“We are blessed that our base pay will stay the same throughout this time frame as long as we provide the services required by the Oregon Department of Education,” Witty wrote. “I would encourage all of us to consider ways we can serve our neighbors and the greater community during this time.”
Although next week is the regularly scheduled spring break, Witty said he will gather the administrative team on Wednesday to continue planning.
The superintendent said they are working to develop the best systems to support students and families.
“We have no qualms about doing whatever it takes to get that done,” he said.
Witty said he believes it is imperative that the District’s leadership team and staff pull together to mitigate the impacts of the school closures.
One way of doing that will be for the District to track the cost of providing child care for emergency service workers.
“If we have positive revenue, we will donate that to the food bank or to other organizations in the community to help those who are less fortunate,” he said.
Witty says he is asking his staff to be “service-minded” and to be cognizant of everybody’s health as their work continues.
“It’s critical we give one another grace,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how we can help each other, and this might be for an extended period. This is uncharted territory.”