NOTE: The Enterprise is providing this free to the community as a public service to keep residents informed. Please share and please subscribe to support this reporting.

VALE – Just four days into the new school year, 50 employees and students in the Vale School District have gone into quarantine because of the coronavirus, according to Superintendent Alisha McBride.

The school system with 875 students may have to stop in-person teaching.

“That means that over 50 people have either tested positive or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19,” McBride wrote in a letter to parents. “At this time, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is spreading in our schools; however, if we do not act now, it is possible that our children will be forced into distance learning shortly after the school year begins.”

Quarantine guidelines vary between vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and according to guidance from the Malheur County Health Department. McBride cited general health department guidance that says people with Covid should isolate for 10 days after becoming symptomatic or testing positive, and unvaccinated people in close contact with someone with a positive case should isolate for 14 days.

"Since the first day of school, the District Office has administered 21 tests with 4 positives for a positivity rate of 19%," McBride wrote in an email to the Enterprise. She noted that since some individuals choose to get tested outside of the district office, there could be more positive cases not reflected in those numbers.

The Vale zip code, 97918, currently has a vaccination rate of 32.8%, according to the Oregonian. Its rate of Covid per 10,000 people is 1,138.7.

State officials haven’t imposed metrics outlining a number or percentage of Covid cases that would force schools to close their doors. That decision is still up to local school leaders.

However, state guidance for the 2021-2022 school year gives the state public health director at the Oregon Health Authority “broad authority to close a facility that presents a public health risk.” Likewise, the director of the Oregon Department of Education also has “authority to close a school facility within existing state laws.” 

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, reaffirmed McBride’s statement that there was no evidence to suggest Covid was being spread in Vale schools. Rather, she said that the high numbers of students and staff in quarantine reflected the incidence of Covid in the community, with the total number of cases in Malheur County since the beginning of the pandemic passing 4,000 this week.

“It’s very unlikely that someone would’ve been in school this Monday and we already are seeing an outbreak from spread in schools,” Poe said. “They’re maintaining distance between students at least in the school building. They have to follow such restrictions that they do limit close contact and everyone has to wear a face covering.”

Physical distancing at Vale schools “is not required, but is encouraged” under a policy set by the Vale School Board.

McBride closed her letter to the community by reminding families that mask-wearing is expected at Vale schools as a result of Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate, and asked families not to send children to school if they had symptoms of Covid. 

McBride said that since the beginning of the school year Aug. 20, her staff has been "teaching the expectation" of mask-wearing to students.

"I am proud of the grace, patience, and resilience that so many of our staff and students are embodying as we return to school," she said. "There remain a few high school students who are still reluctant to wear face coverings in school. Unfortunately, this places not only those students, but the students around them at greater risk of becoming ill or being required to quarantine."

McBride said that per state guidelines, the district may be "forced to offer (those) students a remote learning option" if they do not begin to comply with the masking mandate.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, said that as cases rise, forcing quarantines across school systems, a new consensus has emerged among superintendents.

“Not only should parents keep their kids home if they are experiencing symptoms of Covid,” he said. “They should seriously consider keeping their kids home if anyone in the household is experiencing symptoms of Covid.”

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

RELATED COVERAGE:

Malheur County leaders say vaccine mandate could cripple or close schools, ambulance service

Malheur County gears up for Covid blitz

Malheur County sheriff calls out governor, won't enforce mandates and will challenge new ones

Governor announces adults and children must wear masks in public outdoor settings

UPDATED: Gov. Brown to require all K-12 staff and health care workers to get vaccinated

Full days, masks on: Malheur County heads back to school

Distrust of government, vaccine evident at Ontario protest

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.