Local officials press the case for Malheur County schools to open fully

A classroom at Ontario High School. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

VALE – Elected officials in Malheur County are pressing Gov. Kate Brown to change state Covid rules so local school children can return to normal classes.

Acting separately, the Vale School Board, the Malheur Education Service District Board and the Ontario City Council each approved messages to the governor with the same intent: Open local schools.

The ESD Board on Tuesday, Dec. 15, urged the governor to “prioritize the return of all students in grades K-5, with an ultimate goal of returning all students to school.” The two-page resolution urged Brown to “reevaluate the metrics for reopening” and enforce “measures to reduce community spread.”

Malheur County has been posting one of the highest Covid infection rates in Oregon, leading the state to rank it as “extreme risk” for continuing spread of a virus that has killed 49 county residents and infected nearly 3,000.

But officials in Malheur County note that the percentage of tests for Covid turning up positive has been dropping. They said there is no evidence that schools trigger so-called “super-spreader events” – moments when many people gather and the infection spreads uncontrolled.

“This was the first resolution in the nine years at the ESD that I’ve known of that has made a direct request to the governor’s office,” said Mark Redmond, ESD superintendent.

Redmond pointed out that as students locally returned to schools for limited in-person instruction, the county’s case count per week has gone down. 

“This data supports other studies that continue to show that schools are not ‘super-spreaders’, and that schools will have cases, but schools have measures in place to minimize spread while providing the education and support our students need,” said Redmond.

The ESD resolution asserted that “students experiencing poverty and homelessness, students experiencing disabilities, and students learning a second language are being harmed disproportionately by comprehensive distance learning.”

Board members approving the resolution include chair Les Linegar, vice chair Jill Conant, and members Dennis Hironaka, Cheri Hung, Dave Westerberg, Don Bullard, and Don Hodge.

Ken Hart, an Ontario city councilor and former president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, helped fashion the city’s resolution, adopted Dec. 15. Besides Hart, the resolution was supported by Councilors Freddy Rodriguez, Marty Justus, Ramon Palomo, Michael Braden, Norm Crume, and Mayor Riley Hill.

The one-page resolution requests that the governor “allow at least elementary school students to participate in in-person instruction and that the state develop protocols and standards for allowing youth to be safely instructed in the classroom.”

Hart said there is a price for not returning to school.

“So many of the students in Malheur County live in poverty,” said Hart. “Forcing these students to attend school remotely while living in poor living conditions, having a lack of reliable WiFi and sometimes harmful environments can cause long term harm to these students.”

“We keep saying follow the science and the science points to safely opening schools, especially at the younger grades,” said Hart.

The Ontario resolution endorses a Dec. 2 letter from Bend-area elected officials which sets Jan. 4 as the ideal date for school to start. Their letter specified that getting kindergarten through fifth-grade students into in-person class should be the priority.

It also emphasized the need to expand testing, citing the New York City Department of Education’s goal of “testing 20% of students, teachers and staff who choose to participate in in-person school on a monthly basis,” which it says Oregon should match or exceed.

Bend pediatrician Kate Broadman said in a letter accompanying the central Oregon plea, “We are treating schools like they are uniquely dangerous, when in fact they are uniquely essential.”

And in a special meeting Friday, the Vale School Board echoed the calls on the governor to relent on the metrics “to put the welfare and education of children first in Oregon by adopting and enforcing measures to reduce community spread and prioritizing funding for K-12 education to manage the increased costs of in-person instruction.”

The board found that “there are undeniable educational and mental health setbacks to all students due to comprehensive distancing learning” and that such distance learning “may impede” the ability elementary students to “master foundational learning skills.”

The resolution said that schools following proper health standards “serve as guardians against transmission.”

The resolution was approved by Chair Michael McGourty and Directors Jason Chamberlain, Dave Wenger, Randy Seals and Darlene McConnell.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577 .

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