Although Oregon officials have loosened the requirements for some rural schools to have students return to classrooms, Baker School District students still will begin the year on Sept. 8 with all classes online.
The Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority announced revised standards Tuesday related to COVID-19 cases.
Baker Schools Superintendent Mark Witty led the cause of seven Eastern Oregon districts, along with county and state representatives and other school and health officials, asking for changes to the original metrics that Gov. Kate Brown announced July 28.
Witty said Tuesday afternoon that he was pleased that state officials listened to the information presented to them and eased the requirements for school districts in counties with populations of 30,000 or less or with a population density of fewer than six residents per square mile.
Baker County meets both standards.
“It does move away from the one-size-fits-all,” Witty said. “They’ve given us more flexibility and more authority has been given to the local public health officials.”
Under the original metrics the governor announced July 28, schools couldn’t have in-person classes unless their county had a COVID-19 weekly case rate of less than 10 new cases per 100,000 population for three straight weeks, and a weekly positive test rate of 5% or below, also for three straight weeks.
Baker County would not meet either metric based on the case totals for the past few weeks. To meet the case rate standard the county could not have more than one new case in any of the three weeks.
The original metrics also had a statewide metric — no school district could offer in-person classes unless the statewide weekly positive test rate was 5% or below for three straight weeks.
“It might have been impossible to get back to in-person school for the whole year had changes not been made to the original metrics,” Witty said.
The new metrics, while allowing for a return to in-person classes sooner, still will provide for the safety of the students, the staff and the community in general, he believes.
“I think this is a very strong move in the right direction for us,” Witty said.
The new metrics announced Tuesday exempt school districts in rural counties such as Baker from the statewide test rate standard.
The weekly new case rate and positive test rate metrics have been replaced. The new metric for the Baker School District to offer in-person classes requires that Baker County have 30 or fewer new cases over the preceding three weeks, with fewer than half of the new cases during that period happening during the last of the three weeks.
Baker County would have met that requirement based on the most recent three-week period for which statistics are available, July 12-Aug. 1. During that period the county had 22 new cases, with nine in the last of the three weeks.
However, the new metrics also require that county health officials conclude that there is no community spread of the virus.
Witty said Tuesday that in his recent conversations with Dr. Eric Lamb, the county health officer, Lamb’s opinion is that there is community spread happening, with between 2 and 9 new cases reported weekly since late June.
For that reason, Witty said, the District will continue with plans for comprehensive distance education when school starts on Sept. 8.
“The county has said we do have a community spread,” he said. “I have faith in their expertise and we’re going to lean on it. At some point — hopefully sooner than later — we will be able to come back to in-person school.”
That decision will be made based on the likelihood that the district could continue to qualify to have in-person classes for an extended time, Witty said.
He said Tuesday that it’s too soon to predict when in-person classes might resume.
“We need to let the data tell the story before we start predicting what’s going to happen,” he said.
The Baker School Board agreed during a special meeting Aug. 6 to review the numbers after six weeks of classes — in late October — and to begin to plan from there.
An all-online education system still will be available to families who don’t want their children to return to classrooms, Witty said.