Superintendent Mark Witty isn’t ready just yet to change plans for reopening Baker schools, with limited in-person classes.
But based on recent trends in the number of COVID-19 cases in Baker County, the new state requirements that Gov. Kate Brown unveiled Tuesday could force school district officials to revise their plans before classes start, likely on Sept. 8.
The school district plans to offer in-person classes for elementary students in Grades K-6 Monday through Thursday. Students in Grades 7-12 are to be divided into two groups to rotate through in-person and online instruction every other day, Monday through Thursday. Families who preferred total online instruction for their children, regardless of grade, also would have that option.
Under Tuesday’s guidelines as announced by Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, schools can have in-person instruction, including the hybrid model Baker has proposed for grades 7-12, in counties where the weekly COVID-19 infection rate is 10 or fewer per 100,000 population for three straight weeks.
The county’s rate of positive tests must also must be 5% or below for three consecutive weeks, and Oregon’s statewide positivity rate must also remain at 5% or below for three straight weeks.
“Each of these metrics must be achieved for three consecutive weeks in order to roll out our 20-21 instructional plan,” Witty stated in a press release Tuesday.
“At this time, the number of positive cases combined with the overall positive test rate, when considered over a three-week period, places Baker in the category of being unable to provide in-person instruction until case rate and positive test rates decrease.”
Based on the metrics state officials announced Tuesday, Baker would be able to start in-person school by Sept. 8 if the number of COVID-19 cases in the county is reduced to no more than one case per week.
Based on the county’s population of 16,134 in the 2010 Census, two positive cases in one week equates to a weekly case rate of 12.4 per 100,000 — above the threshold of 10.
A single positive case in one week most likely would also meet the metric of a positivity rate of 5% or less. During the past five weeks, an average of 85 county residents have been tested per week. One positive case out of 85 tests is a rate of 1.2%, below the 5% limit.
Witty said the District officials have understood all along that they would have to be flexible and be prepared for fully online instruction, through the help of a new $600,000 technology system, if necessary.
But his preference is to have as much in-person teaching as possible.
Before he digs into the details of how the state’s new requirements could affect the Baker School District’s plans, Witty says he has some talking to do with other leaders from rural Northeastern Oregon schools and health department officials. He planned to meet Wednesday afternoon via Zoom video session with superintendents from Union, Wallowa, Grant, Harney, Malheur and Lake counties.
“We need to ponder this and think about if this works in all parts of the state,” Witty said of the state’s plan. “I do believe reasonable people can get together and try to work through some of the nuances of what our positions are.”
Witty says he doesn’t believe it’s reasonable to set the same requirements for large districts in counties where COVID-19 infections are understandably a major concern.
And he questions whether two positive cases in one week in Baker County, though it would fail to meet the state standard, should constitute an outbreak.
Witty also believes the state’s metrics should consider the role of local health departments and whether those managers believe cases have been isolated and contained in their areas.
Witty says he and the other school leaders in the region will be working to put together a message that will go out to all county commissioners as well as state legislators Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, seeking their support in the matter.
Witty also will be talking with Colt Gill, Oregon Department of Education director, along with local health department officials.
“I’ve got to have 10 days to walk through the normal political process to see what variances make sense,” Witty said. “What potential variances or exceptions could be written in to bring a little more reasonableness to the process.”
Requirements aren’t as stringent for school districts that want to offer in-person classes for K-3 students, or for rural districts with fewer than 100 students.
Students in those grades and schools can attend classes in person if the county case rate is below 30 per 100,000, and the test positivity rate is 5% or below.
In announcing the new rules Tuesday, Gov. Brown pointed to studies that have shown that students in those primary grades have lower rates of the coronavirus and are less likely to spread it to others than older students.
Witty asked the public to help the District achieve its goal of offering as much in-person school as possible by following social distancing, wearing face coverings in public and washing hands frequently.
“The better we do that as a community, the better job we can do of providing a quality education to our families,” Witty said. “We need the community’s help.”
The Baker School Board was scheduled to discuss the issue during a meeting set to begin at noon today.