Desks and chairs are stacked in a classroom at Alameda Elementary School in Ontario. The room is undergoing deep cleaning in preparation for coming school year. A new work group of officials will try to frame a new set of metrics for rural schools during the Covid pandemic. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

VALE - A 12-member work group of eastern Oregon officials is forming to address the governor’s Covid metrics as it relates to rural schools.

The work group idea emerged from a conference call on Friday, July 31, organized by state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. Findley said Gov. Kate Brown and members of her staff, along with about 45 other people – including elected leaders, school and public health officials – took part in the Friday session.

The work group consists of school superintendents, county commissioners, public health officials and representatives from education service districts, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education.

The goal of the work group is to develop a “workable and logical” path forward and create a new matrix to get “kids back in school,” said Findley.

Findley said flexibility with metrics for school reopening is important, especially in rural areas such as Malheur County where great distances separate towns and school districts.

Jordan Valley School District, for example, is 72 miles from Ontario. Arock School District is just over 100 miles south of Ontario.

“Not allowing Arock school to open because Ontario has an outbreak is silly,” said Findley.

Findley said the group hopes to be able to announce revised metrics by Aug. 11.

The work group was created in response to the governor’s announcement July 28 that required a county Covid case rate of 10 cases per 100,000 residents and a county positive testing rate of less than 5% for three weeks and a state positive testing rate of less than 5% maintained for three weeks for schools to reopen.

Malheur County doesn’t meet any benchmark.

Findley said the genesis of the work group plan was developed by Mark Redmond, Malheur Education Service district superintendent, Mark Witty, superintendent Baker School District and Dr. Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the Intermountain Education Service District.

 “They put some things together, some talking points, and we want to capitalize on those and come up with some recommendations which will allow us a little better breakdown with small schools and not one-size-fits-all,” said Findley.

The group includes Redmond, Witty, Mulvihill, Angie Arriola, Malheur ESD, Matt Hawley, Crane School District superintendent, Mike Carter, Lakeview School District superintendent, Sara Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, Mark Bennett, Baker County commissioner, Stefanie Garber, Culver School District superintendent, Dr. Sara Johnson, superintendent of the Crook County School District and Joseph Fiumara Jr., director of the Umatilla County Health Department.

Redmond said no date has been set for the work groups first meeting.

Findley said a revised matrix that better fits the rural nature of eastern Oregon is a “logical path forward so kids can get in the building.”

“Does that mean Ontario is probably going to open, I don’t know that. The case numbers don’t support that,” said Findley.

Findley said “there will be others” that will also give input to the work group, including representative from the Oregon Health Authority.

Findley said he was nervous about the conference call because “of the enormity of it and some of the political stuff that could have went into it.”

“But politics never entered into it,” said Findley. “The governor and her staff were very excited about doing it.”

“We will put some of our concerns out on the table and hopefully work through them with the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to see if we can adjust the metrics a little,” said Redmond.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.

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