Malheur County schools could open in January as governor announces new rules

Gov. Kate Brown announced new Covid metrics regarding schools Wednesday. (Jonathan House/Pamplin Media)

Students in Malheur County could return to something approaching a normal school day as soon as next month under new rules announced Wednesday by Gov. Kate Brown.

Brown directed state officials to put in place measures to allow schools to reopen and turning over to local school districts the decision on whether to open schools.

“The greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of Covid-19 in our communities,” Brown said in announcing her decision.

She said authorities at the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education were to work with schools “with the goal of preparing more Oregon schools, especially elementary schools, to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15.”

DOCUMENT: Gov. Kate Brown’s letter

The governor said that “moving forward, decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school.”

The announcement has significant implications for Malheur County, where almost all schools have been shuttered due to a Covid positivity rate and case count that categorized the community as in a state of “extreme risk.” 

School officials in Malheur County have been pressing for more freedom to return students to school even as the county faces a high Covid infection rate, with 2,743 cases and 49 deaths to date. Nonetheless, last week the Malheur Education Service District board, Vale School District Board and Ontario City Council all approved messages to the governor last week imploring her to reopen schools. The measures referenced data collected by doctors which has indicated that schools are unlikely to catalyze Covid “super spreading” events.

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

A handful of school districts in Malheur County such as Jordan Valley have been fully open for in-person instruction since the beginning of the school year, thanks to their small student populations and remoteness.

Other school districts, among them Vale, Harper, and Adrian, have managed to return all their students to two hours of limited in-person instruction. 

Ontario, the largest district with 2,417 students enrolled, was the last to return students at all, beginning limited in-person instruction only in the first week of November. Because Oregon Health Authority guidelines mandate a cohort system in which students can interact with no more than 20 peers, it has been difficult for districts with more students to return them all to limited in-person instruction. 

Taryn Smith, public relations and communications coordinator for the Ontario School District, estimated that about 20% of students now have access to some in-person learning, with certificate classes in programs like welding and nursing prioritized at the high school level.

“As a district we wanted to take a conservative approach to bringing back small cohorts of students so that we didn’t have to shut down limited in-person instruction and reopen, creating an inconvenient open/close cycle for staff, students, and parents,” said Smith. 

Even for school districts where all students have access to limited in-person instruction, the majority of the school day is spent online, a format that educators say is failing students.

“There are undeniable educational and mental health setbacks to all students due to comprehensive distance learning,” read the resolution in favor of school reopenings passed Dec. 15 by the ESD. 

And Vale, Ontario, and Adrian school districts all reported increased failure rates for high school students during comprehensive distance learning. 

Malheur County is listed by the state as at “extreme risk” for Covid infections. The county has been a state hot spot for months. In more recent weeks, the rate of infections and the percentage of tests coming back positive has been dropping. 

Still, most measures were far above what the state wanted to see before full classes could resume. 

The most recent data reported by the OHA listed the county’s positive test rate as 15.4%  – significantly lower than the September peak of 45%, but much higher than the 5% threshold set by the state as one standard to allow schools to open.

The state also set a standard of 50 cases per 100,000 population. Malheur County’s rate for that standard was at 204 in the state’s most recent report.

State metrics also govern other aspects of life in Malheur County with indoor social and at-home gatherings limited to six people and no more than two households. Outdoor gatherings are restricted to a maximum of six people and a limit of two households.

Restaurants were forced to stop indoor dining again, but can provide takeout service and outdoor dining. That limit has crippled the local hospitality industry.

Previous coverage:

New Covid regulations make school reopening unlikely

State officials relent giving Malheur County schools more options to put kids in classrooms

Malheur schools plan strategies for online education, graduations as COVID-19 closures extend through April

Malheur County now leads the state in Covid infection rate

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