The Baker School Board made a disappointing decision Thursday.
That it was also the right decision — indeed, the necessary decision — doesn’t ease the disappointment.
The Board decided that all classes will be conducted online when the school year starts Sept. 8. The school district’s goal was to have in-person classes for grades K-6, and a hybrid model for students in grades 7-12, with those students attending classes in school two days a week and online the other two days.
But based on the requirements that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced July 28 — metrics related to COVID-19 cases that counties must meet to make schools within their borders eligible to offer in-person classes — Baker schools can’t currently qualify.
And although a task force of local officials from rural counties, including Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett, has been lobbying state officials to ease those requirements for counties including Baker, there is no guarantee that the campaign will result in Baker schools being able to welcome students into classrooms in September.
Meanwhile, hundreds of local families are trying to figure out their fall schedule. And with only a month before school starts, parents need to know whether their kids will be learning in a classroom or at home.
The bottom line is that the Board needed to make a decision. And because it seems unlikely, based on recent trends in the number of COVID-19 cases and the rate of positive tests, that the district will meet the state’s requirements for in-person classes by Sept. 8, a completely online curriculum was the only plausible option.
This is hardly ideal.
Online school creates challenges for the district’s 1,700 students, their teachers and their families. The district has used federal COVID-19 money to improve its online teaching system. But now officials will need to strive to ensure that all students have the computer and internet access necessary to participate in classes. Some parents probably will have to give up jobs, or substantially change their work schedules, to be home with elementary school students.
The metrics the governor announced July 28 aren’t quite as strict when applied to allowing in-person classes for K-3 students. Baker superintendent Mark Witty said Thursday that he expects to review the situation for those students after a month, to see if it’s possible to resume in-person classes, and undertake a similar review for grades 4-12 around the middle of October.
State officials are scheduled to announce potential changes to the July 28 metrics on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Those changes could make it possible for smaller school districts in the area, including Huntington, Burnt River, Pine Eagle and Powder Valley, to have in-person classes for some or all students.
State officials have said the overriding goal is to have students return to classrooms as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Officials need to acknowledge that conditions in counties such as Baker, where test results suggest the virus is not widespread and where no outbreaks have happened, warrant the resumption of in-person classes sooner than in counties with significantly higher rates of COVID-19 cases.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor