An increase this week in new COVID-19 cases in Baker County could jeopardize the Baker School District’s plan to return elementary students to in-person classes on Oct. 14.
With two new cases reported Friday, the county has reported eight cases since Sunday, Oct. 4. That’s the highest weekly total since the week starting Aug. 30, when there were 13 new cases. Most of those 13 cases were from Meadowbrook Place assisted living facility, the site of the county’s only outbreak. That outbreak, which totaled 27 cases, has been controlled.
To meet state standards for returning students to in-person classes, Baker County has to meet two thresholds related to the number of new cases over the previous 3 weeks.
First, the total cases for that period can’t exceed 30. As of Friday the county was well within that range, with 19 total cases.
But the second metric could be a different matter. It requires that for the last week in the period, the county have five or fewer cases, or have less than half the total fall within that single week.
As of Friday, eight of the 19 cases had been reported in the past week. If the county records three cases this weekend, that would mean half of the cases in the 3-week period — 11 of 22 — would have been in the last week, which wouldn’t meet the metric.
Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, said Friday that some, but not all, of the eight cases this week were connected.
She noted that Oregon’s statewide new case rate has also been rising this week. Thursday’s total of 484 new cases was the highest one-day total during the pandemic. There were 425 new cases statewide on Friday.
“If we’re going to get our kids back to school this is not a good time to let down our guard,” Staten said.
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said Friday afternoon that he is hopeful in-person classes will start Oct. 14 as planned for preschoolers through sixth graders.
“We’re still in the running,” Witty said, noting that he will rely on a Monday morning report from the Health Department to make the decision.
If the district’s elementary schools can return to an all-day in-person class schedule beginning Oct. 14, it will be up to the schools to keep the students and staff healthy so that they can remain on that schedule.
“Once you’re in, it’s about how are you able to manage within your setting,” Witty said. “It’s more about what happens in school, in consultation with the Baker County Health Department. If you can stay clean, you’re good.”
There are lots of moving parts included in accomplishing that goal, ranging from classroom management to food services and transportation, Witty pointed out.
“It’s a heavy lift,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work for the staff and administration at each site.”
Witty said the decision about whether the elementary schools will be able to begin in-person classes will be announced as soon as possible Monday, Oct. 12.
If the opening is possible, no comprehensive distance learning classes will be scheduled Tuesday to allow staff to prepare for Wednesday, Witty said.
“It’s an interesting position to be in,” he said. “We can go either way.”
If the schools cannot open, Witty said the District will reconsider.
“We’ll talk to the Health Department and Board and take a little bit of a pause and see what we think about it and see what is the best direction,” he said.
Baker County has reported 109 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started. That includes 96 residents who have tested positive, and 13 “presumptive” cases, people who haven’t tested positive but had close contact with someone who did.
Chris Collins of the Baker City Herald contributed to this story.