Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has given the Baker School District a series of tests to pass before the district can resume limited in-person classes for students starting Sept. 8, a plan the district announced earlier this month.
Unfortunately, those tests seem roughly comparable to requiring a first-grader to master algebra.
The COVID-19-related requirements the governor has set — “metrics” is the term of the moment — are not fair for Baker County and for other rural counties with small populations and comparatively few cases of the virus.
For instance, the Baker School District could not allow any students to attend classes in school unless the county, for three consecutive weeks, has a weekly case rate of 10 or fewer per 100,000 people.
Here’s the problem with that metric: To meet it, Baker County, based on its 2010 Census population of 16,134, could have no more than one positive case per week in each of those three weeks. Two positive cases in one week is a case rate of 12.4 per 100,000.
Although Baker County, with 25 cases as of Wednesday, has had fewer cases than 26 of Oregon’s 35 other counties, it could not have met that metric even based on its modest increase in reported cases during July. With nine cases the week of July 19-25, the county’s case rate was 55.8.
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty acknowledged the challenge the 10 cases per 100,000 metric presents in a press release Tuesday afternoon.
The state’s requirements could block the district’s entire plan for the resumption of classes Sept. 8. That plan calls for students in grades K-6 to attend classes in their schools Monday through Thursday, as usual. Middle school and high school students would be divided into two groups. Each group would attend in-person classes two days a week and take the same classes online the other two days.
Another metric is also unreasonable for sparsely populated counties such as Baker.
To have in-person classes, counties must have a weekly positive test rate of 5% or below, again for three consecutive weeks. This poses a challenge for Baker County because we have had relatively few residents tested — 833 as of Wednesday. If 85 people are tested in a given week, which is the county’s average for the past five weeks, if five or more of those people test positive — hardly an outbreak — the county would still fail to meet the 5% threshold (the positive test rate in that scenario would be 5.9%).
What’s troubling about this metric is that it in effect punishes counties where the virus is not prevalent. One reason relatively few Baker County residents have been tested is that few have the symptoms to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for testing. Even accounting for the reality that some infected people have no symptoms, the county’s relatively low number of tests is a good thing. But based on the governor’s metrics the low number of tests actually makes it more difficult for the school district to resume in-person classes.
Yet the state’s requirements that are specific to the virus prevalence in individual counties are not even the most onerous examples. Brown also puts counties at the mercy of the state as a whole, in effect potentially punishing counties such as Baker, where the virus has not spread widely, for future outbreaks in counties such as Multnomah, Marion and Clackamas.
Here’s how: Besides requiring each county to meet specific metrics, the state won’t allow in-person classes in any county, with the possible exception of K-3 students, unless the statewide weekly positive test rate is 5% or below for three straight weeks. There’s no reason to punish Baker County students for an outbreak in Portland or Salem, but that’s precisely what this metric could do. The only reason for optimism is that the statewide weekly positive test rate, after exceeding 5% for three straight weeks starting in late June, dipped to 4.8% for the most recent week, ending July 25. If that trend continues through August, then school districts would have the small solace of having to meet only county-specific metrics rather than also depending on a statewide test rate staying below 5%
The state is more lenient for K-3 students. They could attend classes at school if the county’s weekly case rate drops below 30 per 100,000 population and has a positive test rate of 5% or below. Brown, who acknowledged Tuesday that younger students are less likely to spread the virus, should at a minimum expand that metric to include students through sixth grade. That could at least allow the Baker School District to teach K-6 students in classrooms starting Sept. 8, even if the district’s hybrid model for middle and high school students isn’t possible.
The state’s school plan is simply too broad, and relies too heavily on percentages rather than on the actual prevalence of the virus. There’s no legitimate reason for depriving students in Baker County of in-person learning based on the incidence of COVID-19 within our borders.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor