ONTARIO – For 68 days, the Vale School District strived to develop a plan to open its doors for in-person instruction under state guidelines.

District teachers and officials surveyed community members, and discovered 87% voted for in-person instruction.

The district calculated room space, puzzled over busing options, all the while understanding that in the end, the move to open schools or not was a local decision, based on what the community and schools wanted.

In Nyssa, the school district finished its reopening plans last week, which included a 30-page plan for each school with details regarding busing, classroom and playground procedures, and provisions for video-streamed classes for any student who wants it.

On Tuesday, July 28, those plans were scuttled when Gov. Kate Brown announced three new metrics for schools across the state to reopen for in-person instruction. The metrics are straightforward:

•A county positive testing rate of 5% for three weeks

•A county rate of 10 cases per 100,000 residents for three weeks

•A state positive testing rate of 5% for three weeks

Those new standards create a new playing field for area school officials and are especially poignant when framed against the county’s latest Covid statistics released by the Oregon Health Authority for the week beginning July 19.

According to those statistics, Malheur County now has a positive testing rate of 20.8%, a rate of 284 cases per 100,000 residents and a state positive testing rate of 5.1%.

Prison Covid outbreaks won’t be counted to determine if schools should open, since those cases don’t spill over into the community, said Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist.

Under the governor’s new metrics, rural schools with less than 100 students, like Jordan Valley, kindergarten through third-grade, and special education classes can still open for in-person instruction if the case rate per 100,000 residents is less than 30 and the county and state testing rates are less than 5%.

The governor’s announcement came a week after the Oregon Department of Education gave school boards the power to close schools and announced local health departments can appeal to a state a decision to shutter local learning centers.

Brown, along with Sidelinger, said the state can get its rates down if residents wear masks, wash their hands and watch their distance from others.

Brown announced the metrics at the July 28 briefing with Sidelinger, Colt Gill, Oregon Department of Education director and Miriam Calderon, Early Learning System director.

How Covid affects children

A crucial piece to the overall Covid matrix is its impact on children.

So far, there have only been 3 hospitalizations per 100,000 children aged 5 to 17 years across the United States, according to the CDC.

The CDC also said the primary harm for students from the pandemic are from social, emotional and behavioral effects, and the disease poses low risks to school-age children.

Brown is concerned with the disease being spread to staff, and with the cases being spread into the community.

The governor’s decision was based, at least in part, on a report from Washington state’s Bellevue Institute for Disease Modeling, according to a joint statement released during the governor’s July 28 announcement from the Oregon Health Department and Education Department. The July 13 institute report was intended to recommend best practices to reopen schools in Washington, before the case count rose exponentially.

The report focused on King County and the Seattle area that recorded a 3.6% positive test rate, 89 cases per 100,000 residents and 2.4% of hospital beds filled with Covid patients. Those statistics barred schools from reopening.

The joint statement also referenced research from the Regional Educational Laboratory Program for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which said any reopening of schools is likely to increase infection, although mitigation strategies can reduce the numbers of infections. 

The American Association of Pediatrics recommended that all policy considerations’ goals should focus on students physically present in school, because of the support services schools provide, but it said strategies have to be adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the community.

Statewide distance learning guidance

The new metrics mean area school districts will switch to a virtual, on-line learning model, much like the template used in the spring.

State virtual teaching guidance means districts can’t limit progression in course sequences, grade promotion, advanced course placement, or access to sports, clubs such as the Future Farmers of America when they go online.

The majority of language education to English learners must be live. Schools must also still deliver meals to students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Attendance for grades Kindergarten through fifth-grade must be taken at least once per day, and for grades six and up, once each scheduled class in a day. Virtual family conferences must happen at the beginning of the year, and at least four times a year, in the language the family speaks.

The guidelines require districts to give reliable internet access and computers for every student and teacher, with “flexible solutions” if home networks are not possible.

In Vale, Superintendent Alisha McBride said the district will be ready when the school year begins Aug. 17.

McBride said since last year, the district learned that staff and families need more resources to make virtual learning effective, and the district is planning to teach virtually in the case of an outbreak.

In an email, McBride wrote it was unfortunate that the metrics were not released earlier, and she believes it’s in the best interest of her community to teach in-person. 

“I am confident that our staff will provide students with access to high-quality virtual instruction; however, I do worry about the additional burden that this places on working parents,” she wrote.

Nyssa School District

The Nyssa School District finalized its reopening plans last week, confident school doors would be open in a month.

The district plan allowed for any students who didn’t feel comfortable in class to watch a classroom live stream instead, and restricted students to stay in their class - with a maximum of 22 students - for the entire day, with meals delivered to the classrooms, and the playground marked out for the group. 

Now, teachers will instead teach through Google Classrooms, according to their reopening plans.

Adrian School District

Over the last four to five weeks, the reopening committee at the Adrian School District – which consists of teachers and staff – has spent “probably a little over 150” hours planning for potential in-person schooling in the fall, said Superintendent Kevin Purnell.

The committee worked to find out what percentage of parents wanted their children to return to school, said Purnell, as well as how many who had previously relied on busing would be willing to drive their children to school to allow for social distancing on buses.

Purnell said he doesn’t think staying at home with limited interaction is healthy for children.

“I worry about their social and emotional well-being,” he said. “I really worry about our younger kids and not getting face-to-face, in-person instruction with a teacher," he said.

While he hopes distance learning doesn’t become long-term, he said the school district will learn from what worked well and what didn’t last spring “and take advantage of the resources that are out there.”

In the spring, some families lacked internet access when the district first went remote, he said, so Adrian is exploring T-Mobile hotspots as a potential solution for those students and is currently testing how well the devices work in the area.

Many teachers at Adrian have been taking part in workshops this summer to help prepare for distance learning, “so we’re better equipped to handle it,” he said.

Purnell said he thinks the school metrics “don’t seem to reflect what’s happening in Eastern Oregon.”

“They don’t take into consideration the vastness that there is out here,” he said. “It doesn’t seem realistic to me," he said.

The school district was planning for a hybrid model in the fall based on survey results from parents, he said, which reflected a desire to return to school.

Ontario School District

Ontario’s current plan, if possible, is for the school district to use distance learning for four weeks and look to return to classrooms Oct. 1 but whether or not that is feasible depends on what the state allows, and whether or not the county metrics improve.

Ontario School District Superintendent Nicole Albisu said she wants parents to know that staff are working on a more solid plan for distance learning than the blueprint used in the spring. “We didn’t have much of a choice before, we had to roll it out fast,” she said. “We’ve had more time to prepare for this and learned a lot. We got feedback from parents and teachers and were able to put that all together and make a better plan.”

A key issue for the school district in the spring was students not having access to the technology needed for distance learning, she said. Staff have since identified which families lack those resources and ordered additional Chromebooks to ensure every student and teacher in the district had access.

“I’m not an epidemiologist,” she said, regarding whether or not she agrees with Gov. Brown’s new metrics.

“I would say we have to trust that the people coming up with those numbers know what they’re doing, but I do think it’s going to be a difficult number for us to meet, and the other thing is Ontario is different from Adrian or Harper, and I can see where they probably have much more frustration around those numbers than we do," said Albisu.

While she said she is unsure what will happen with sports in the fall, Albisu said, if children aren’t allowed to return to school while wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines, “I’m just not sure that they’re going to be willing to let us proceed with athletics.”

“We’re just urging parents to hang in there with us,” she said. “We want them to weigh in. Our hands are tied on this, but we do want to support them as best as possible, and so I would encourage, before they say ‘I’m tired of this, I’m gonna just jump into some online or virtual school,’ that we’re gonna do a good job of providing a comprehensive education for their kids.”

Sports

The Oregon School Activities Association’s Executive Board will meet on Wednesday, Aug. 5 and plans to issue a memo to establish updated guidelines for fall high school sports, said Peter Weber, OSAA executive director.

Weber said the new school and health and safety metrics will influence the slate of prep athletics in the fall.

“We think that’ll have a significant impact on our ability to offer activities this fall if we have this many schools that are opening, but opening in a distance learning setting,” he said.

Since the fall season is already delayed, future changes might involve shifting seasons, he wrote in an email.

Weber said OSAA is looking closely at how Washington, Nevada and California have approached their sports seasons for potential options to propose to its board.

Until OSAA issues updated guidance next week, the Ontario School District will wait before making any changes to its return plan for fall sports, said Josh Mink, athletic director for the school district.

Preseason practice for fall sports lasted around two weeks at the school district, he said, before district administration decided to shut them down the second week of July following a “huge spike in Covid cases.”

Additionally, previous guidance from OSAA had marked Aug. 17 as the first fall sanctioned practice date, with Sept. 23 being the first competition date for cross country, volleyball and soccer. Normally, there are only 10 days of fall practice before the first contest date.

“We agreed as a group that, to keep kids interested and to help with that, that we would not continue summer workouts even if Covid cases decreased in Malheur County,” said Mink.

Jeff Aldred, head football coach for Vale High School, also said his team’s future plans are dependent on updated guidance from OSAA, but he expects it may return later in the school year after winter.

“I’m still confident there will be football in the year 2021, I just don’t know when,” said Aldred. The Oregon Health Authority prohibited football indefinitely, since it’s a contact sport, but a spring season is possible.

The Viking grid squad met for workouts two nights a week for about a month, while taking temperature checks and asking contact tracing questions, he said. 

“We had a good turnout and the kids were excited,” he said, but the workouts were put “on pause for a couple of weeks” because, after weeks of drills, conditioning and weight training, the team was “running out of things to do.” 

Unless advised otherwise by OSAA, the team will resume training on Aug. 10 as planned, he said.

“Say they delay the start of fall sports, we’ll continue to [practice], but if they push it to spring, we’ll have to decide if it’s something we want to continue to do,” he said. “I know the kids will want to go but we should probably turn our focus on kids getting prepared for school. I really hope that we can put together some sort of season specifically for the senior class. They’ve put in the work and everybody looks forward to their senior year of athletics.”

Aldred said he hopes that, in the spring, Vale High School seniors won’t have to choose between football and helping with their families’ farms, or choose between sports.

“That’s just not fair,” he said.

Local leaders

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said it would be “extremely difficult” to meet the state’s Covid metrics.

“Those metrics mean we’d have to have less than three or four cases in a week,” said Poe.

She said the metrics mean that the community needs to take Covid “seriously” and “appreciate” its impacts on people.

“We do have the opportunity to flatten the curve,” said Poe. “We know what works.”

Poe said there is an effort to coordinate – between school districts and local health authorities – a regional set of metrics for possible submission to the state.

“We are sharing solutions and suggestions, coming up with our own response to the governor’s matrix,” said Poe.

The effort, she said, is in its preliminary stages and more information on the plan will be available in the new few weeks.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said a one-size-fits-all approach to opening schools isn’t the best method.

“It just seems like it takes away some of the decisions that need to be made locally. It just seems like the goal posts just keep moving, and I don’t think it helps the kids any,” said Joyce.

Reporters Pat Caldwell and Bailey Lewis also contributed to this report.

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