Although Oregon state officials are recommending schools pause sports and other extracurricular activities due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the head of the Baker School District remains optimistic that the district can continue to operate as usual.

“I remain hopeful,” Baker Schools Superintendent Mark Witty said on Wednesday morning, Jan. 5. “We’ve been pretty successful to this point.”

On Monday, Jan. 3, the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) suggested schools either cease extracurricular activities or require students to wear masks, as they do during classes.

It is a suggestion but not a mandate, with the decision left to local officials.

Witty said he met the morning of Jan. 5 with the Baker County Health Department to discuss the situation.

Baker County reported 17 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, Jan. 4 — the highest one-day total in three months, since 18 cases were reported on Oct. 6.

The OHA also reported that a 78-year-old Baker County man died Nov. 28 after testing positive on Oct. 28. It was the county’s 37th COVID-19-related death, and the first reported since Dec. 10. The man had underlying conditions.

With the much more contagious, but less virulent, omicron variant likely the dominant strain of the virus across Oregon, case numbers are rising rapidly.

Baker County reported 37 cases during the first four days of January, after reporting 106 for the whole of December.

The number of Oregonians hospitalized due to COVID-19 remains less than half of the record set during the delta variant surge in September.

Witty said the school district’s goal hasn’t changed.

“Our primary goal remains to keep kids in school as much as possible and to have as many extracurricular events as we can,” he said.

Witty acknowledged, however, that achieving that goal could be difficult, and for a variety of reasons.

“We’re going to be challenged,” he said.

In classrooms, the number of teachers and other staff who are missing work has increased this week, in some cases due to COVID-19 infection or exposure, and in other cases due to other illnesses.

As many as nine employees at South Baker Intermediate School, which houses grades four through six, have been out this week, from a staff of about 45.

At Baker High School, nine workers, out of a staff of about 62, were out on Tuesday, Jan. 4.

“So far we’ve been able to get by, but that might not always be possible,” Witty said.

He encourages staff and students to continue to follow the familiar precautions, including wearing masks, washing their hands frequently and maintaining distance when possible.

But the most vital thing, Witty emphasized, is that people who feel ill need to stay home.

He said he understands that people often feel compelled to go to work, or school or sports practice, even when they don’t feel well.

But with the virus remaining prevalent, that dogged attitude could backfire if an employee or student ends up spreading the virus.

“That could be the very thing that shuts us down,” Witty said. “We need everybody’s help.”

He also pointed out that in terms of sports, Baker’s schedules depend not only on what happens here, but also the situation in other counties and school districts.

If other schools have COVID issues, they might need to cancel or postpone games, Witty said.

The OHA also reported that a 78-year-old Baker County man died Nov. 28 after testing positive on Oct. 28. It was the county’s 37th COVID-19-related death, and the first reported since Dec. 10. The man had underlying conditions.

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