Nyssa students go back to class despite state report showing staff Covid cases

Nyssa Schools Superintendent Darren Johnson says the district is following all state and local precautions to keep students safe after several staffers tested positive for Covid. None were found to have had contact with students. (Enterprise file photo)

NYSSA – Kindergarteners showed up for face-to-face teaching in school Monday, just days after coronavirus cases were reported among Nyssa school employees and students.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, said by email Monday that the district expected 80 of the possible 88 kindergarteners to attend, working with five teachers.

And he said more students would be showing up for classroom teaching at Nyssa Middle School and Nyssa High School, capping at 100 students.

State officials last week disclosed Covid cases tied to all three Nyssa schools and at Four Rivers Community School in Ontario.

The Oregon Education Association, the state teacher union, demanded the Nyssa district cease “failing to observe” state precautions intended to safeguard workers from Covid.

“By failing to observe these precautions, the district is intentionally exposing its employees to Covid 19,” the union wrote in a Monday letter to Johnson.

Along with other districts around state, Nyssa has been largely restricted to distance learning because of the pandemic. Schools stopped fully functioning last March and started school this fall with nearly all teaching go on virtually.

Oregon state officials have imposed tight restrictions on school systems to keep the pandemic out of classrooms.

But those rules included exceptions and Nyssa is relying on one to get its kindergarteners back in.

Johnson said the decision to go back to school, at least for kindergarteners, was made with advice from the Malheur County Health Department and the Oregon Department of Education.

“We are following all protocols for keeping staff and students safe,” Johnson said in a press release.

“Schools provide more than just academics to children and adolescents,” Johnson wrote in an email. “In addition to reading, writing and math, students learn social and emotional skills, get exercise, and have access to mental health support and other services that cannot be provided with online learning.”

The state has advised schools to return younger students to class if they can meet safety and health standards.

 “It is expected that schools will offer in-class options for students in grade K-3 to the extent possible,” according to the state guidance. “Younger students get the virus at lower rates, get less sick when they get Covid-19 and seem to spread the virus less than older children or adults.”

Across Malheur County, a total of 1,010 students were in classrooms at some point during the week of Sept. 27.

Johnson and Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Education Department, said district officials followed all guidelines and took extraordinary steps to ensure kindergarteners could safely return to classrooms.

 They will be in class at Nyssa Elementary School no more than two hours and in groups of 10 or less, Johnson said.

“We chose kindergarten because it was a small group of students that would really benefit from in-person learning, and we could make sure we are following all health protocols on a small scale,” he said.

John Larson, president of the state teacher union, acknowledged the district was following state rules but returning teachers to work in a county with the state’s highest infection rate of Covid was wrong.

“We have a lot of teacher members in Nyssa who think it’s not a good idea,” Larson said Monday. “We have amazing educators in Nyssa. They are such dedicated teachers. They’re nervous.”

State and county health officials disclosed last week that Covid had been diagnosed among four employees and one student at Nyssa High School, one employee at Nyssa Middle School and one employee and one student at the elementary school.

According to the state, the most recent infection was detected Sept. 30.

“Three of the staff are associated to a workplace outbreak and had no student contact,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director in a press release. “The other cases have been investigated and it was identified that they contracted Covid-19 from outside of the school.”

She said those infected are in isolation.

Poe said four employees worked in both the high school and middle school, which led to a double-counting under the state processes.

The state had reported 12 cases in Nyssa schools, while Poe said a total of eight people were determined infected.

Under state rules, schools can’t return to classrooms if, among other factors, any student or employee had been diagnosed with Covid in the past 14 days.

Gill explained in an interview Monday that that rule only applies to schools that have yet to return any students to school.

In Nyssa, small clusters already have been back at school.

According to the most recent report to the state, nine students have been attending in-person classes at the elementary school, 13 at the middle school and 30 at the high school.

Larson said he was aware of one teacher not known to have Covid who was in quarantine after attending a private event in Nyssa where others were infected.

In a statement issued Saturday, Larson said Nyssa’s decision to put kindergartners back in school was “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“Reopening our schools at a time when community spread of a deadly disease continues to grow exponentially puts our students at risk,” he said.

But Gill said Nyssa had taken every precaution to ready its schools.

Johnson said his school district developed plans to cover everything from bus seating to pathways to classrooms to parent pick-ups.

He said all students would have their temperatures checked as they enter schools.

Gill said in a statement Monday that Malheur County officials had traced the infection of all eight people tied to Nyssa schools.

“All of these cases have known sources and are not considered community spread,” Gill said. “All those reached through contact tracing are following the guidelines for quarantining.”

Johnson said he was prohibited from disclosing how many district employees were in quarantine.

Gill said county health officials also reviewed information about each kindergarten student, including details on where they live and their families, and checked those against the county’s list of known Covid cases to clear them for school.

“This helps ensure that they are starting as Covid-19 free as possible and is a step beyond what is required,” Gill said.

In Ontario, Four Rivers Community School was listed as having four staff infected.

Chelle Robins, Four Rivers superintendent, said one employee was reported as infected on Sept. 4, Sept. 14, Sept. 18 and Sept. 21. In each instance, she said, the entire staff was notified.

“We did not inform parents as these staff cases did not have any direct contact to students and were not in the same building,” Robins said.

Students line up for dismissal with their lunches, using marks on the sidewalk as part of the added social distancing protocols adopted by the school. (Submitted photo)

“We waited to bring K-5 into the building until we were sure we had all the pieces in place and that we could learn from our older students during the limited in-person phase-in, understanding that younger students would have a harder time social distancing,” Robins said.

She said school “successfully” return the K-5 students to school last week “with additional strategies for social distancing young students.”

“The safety and well-being of our students and staff are at the forefront of the system that we have in place,” Robins said.

Contact editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].

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