The Baker School District is preparing to welcome students to classrooms, most likely on Sept. 8, for the first time since schools were closed in March due to the pandemic.

The original schedule set Aug. 31 as the first day, but Superintendent Mark Witty has proposed to move back the opening until the day after Labor Day to give teachers and other staff an additional week to prepare for the changes necessitated by precautions designed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

The Baker School Board will meet July 30 to consider Witty’s plan. It’s a good idea, and the board should approve it.

District officials are also working on a detailed reopening plan that the Board will consider during its Aug. 13 meeting. The District is required to submit that plan to the Oregon Department of Education for review by Aug. 15.

The district’s preparations are gratifying. They reflect the optimistic viewpoint about the ability for public schools to return to something like normalcy after a spring and summer that were decidedly abnormal.

Which is not to say that the fall of 2020 will closely resemble the fall of 2019.

The best-case scenario is that Baker students from kindergarten through sixth-grade will learn in their classrooms as usual, Monday through Thursday.

The district’s plan is to divide middle school and high school student bodies into two groups. One group would attend classes in person 2 days per week, while the other group is taking the same classes through the district’s new online portal, a technology that Witty said is considerably more user-friendly than what the district employed this spring, when all classes, at all levels, were conducted online.

But there are also legitimate reasons to be pessimistic about the prospect of students returning to their classrooms, fresh pencils and unmarked notebooks in hand, as autumn approaches.

The rising rate of COVID-19 infections inevitably prompts some people, both parents and school employees, to wonder whether even an ambitious sanitation protocol, combined with an emphasis on social distancing and face coverings, can keep the virus at bay inside schools. Witty said Tuesday that parents of 52 students have told the district they plan to have their children attend classes online. He acknowledged last week that “I think we have to realize that we might have to prepare for all-online this year at some point.”

For the past two weekly measuring periods — July 6-18 — 5.8% of Oregonians tested for COVID-19 were positive. That’s the highest rate since early March. The recent daily record highs in new cases do not reflect only an increase in the number of people being tested (although that number has risen steadily as well) but also a higher percentage rate of infections.

Baker County has fared comparatively well, to be sure.

But of the county’s 16 COVID-19 cases, 15 have been reported since June 30.

Oregon Public Employees United, a group whose members include public school teachers and other school employees, issued a press release this week that tosses a figurative bucket of cold water on the feverish efforts to plan a fall school schedule.

The group contends that “any return to on-site learning first requires that there are no new cases of COVID-19 in a school district’s surrounding counties for at least 2 weeks.”

The press release also contends that resuming in-person classes without adequate safety measures could have “disastrous consequences” and would be “an immoral decision.”

Beyond the classroom, the prospects for athletics is not exactly promising, either.

Buell Gonzales Jr., the Baker School District’s athletic director, said last week that fall sports schedules will almost certainly be affected, with football the most likely to be postponed. California officials announced this week that fall sports in that state won’t start until December or January. Washington high schools won’t play football until next spring. The Oregon School Activities Association will decide this week what to do with the fall schedule in our state.

Baker County residents, as mentioned above, have managed the pandemic about as well as could be hoped. And well enough to justify the modified school schedule the Baker District is proposing.

But that still might not be good enough.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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