Oregon education and health officials, in setting limits by which schools can resume in-person rather than online classes, this week wisely recognized that the coronavirus pandemic has had disparate effects across the state.

This is hardly surprising.

Oregon, besides being the 10th-largest state by size, has a population, totaling about 4.2 million, that is heavily concentrated in the narrow strip of the Willamette Valley.

Among the state’s 36 counties, the population density ranges from about 1,626 people per square mile in Multnomah County, and more than 200 in Clackamas, Washington and Marion counties, to fewer than one person per square mile in Harney, Lake and Wheeler counties.

Baker County is far closer to that trio of sparsely settled counties than to Multnomah or the other Willamette Valley counties., with about 5.5 people per square mile.

A low population density doesn’t guarantee a low incidence of COVID-19, to be sure. Malheur County, with 3.1 people per square mile, has the sixth-highest total of infections in the state — albeit about 600 of the county’s 839 cases are in the Ontario ZIP code.

Baker County, meanwhile, had 53 cases as of Friday.

Yet the guidelines for in-person school classes that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown unveiled July 28 made no concession for Baker County’s relatively low prevalence of the virus. Based on those standards, Baker School District students couldn’t have returned to class if the county had more than one case in any week over a three-week period.

The new standards released Tuesday are more sensible, realistic and fair. The numerical limits are a maximum of 30 new cases over three weeks, with fewer than half of those in the final week. And the county’s health officer would have to approve reopening based on an assessment of community spread of the virus.

Baker schools will open Sept. 8 with all online classes, and continue with that format for at least the first nine weeks.

That’s a reasonable approach. But as Superintendent Mark Witty has said, the goal is to resume regular classes as soon as possible. The state’s new guidelines make that vital objective much more attainable, some time this fall.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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