Empty Ontario High School

The 400 hall of Ontario High School sits vacant in mid-March.

ONTARIO — Following an update to education guidances on Tuesday afternoon, it is unlikely that students in Malheur County will be returning to classrooms for the time being.

In a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, announced a new requirement from the Oregon Department of Education which will be taking a new look at local COVID-19 numbers which will guide when schools in Oregon are able to reopen.

Schools will go off of two county metrics:

• Case rate: Less than or equal to 10 cases per 100,000 population in the preceding seven days.

• Test positivity: Less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.

For the state, there must be a test positivity rate of less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Malheur County has 587 total positive cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths. Malheur County’s seven day case rate (from July 21 to July 28) per 100,000 population is at 269.5.

According to Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe, the county has a positive test rate of 17.2%. When pulling numbers from just July, the positive return rate is 25%.

Currently, the test positivity in Oregon is near 5%. The last time the state’s test positivity rate was below 5% for three weeks was in late April to early June.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the only county in the state of Oregon that is able to reopen schools (based on the state’s metrics) is Wheeler County, which is the sole county in Oregon with zero positive cases. 

The new guidance from the state includes three levels of metrics that will guide the reopening of schools to students:

• The first set of metrics represents the level of disease circulation that would be required for return to in-person instruction, with limited exceptions. Schools would need to begin transition planning as case rates and test positivity declines in counties in order to prepare the school community for the potential upcoming change.

• The second set of metrics refers to indicators of increased COVID-19 spread in the community that would indicate the need to plan for transition back to comprehensive distance learning.

• The third set of metrics indicate disease spread in the community that would prompt initiation of comprehensive distance learning with limited exceptions.

Schools nationwide closed their doors in mid-March following the pandemic caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. In the weeks following spring break, schools rolled out distance learning for the spring term.

According to Sidelinger, the OSAA is refining its guidance for a return to sports. Sidelinger did not say that a closure of schools due to the new metric would mean canceling sports.

He did say that it will likely be some time before there is a full return to contact sports.

Exceptions

The guidance does come with three exemptions.

In the updated guidance, schools which meet certain metrics would be able to offer in-person classes to students in kindergarten through third grade because there is proof that younger students are at a lower risk and need the in-person class time.

“Younger students get the virus at lower rates, get less sick when they get COVID-19 and seem to spread the virus less than older children or adults,” the guidance states. “Younger students also need access to in-person instruction to build literacy and numeracy skills critical to their continued learning.”

But in order for counties to meet these exemptions, they first have to meet a separate criteria:

• COVID-19 is not actively spreading among the school community.

• The case rate in the county is less than or equal to 30 cases per per 100,000 population in the preceding 14 days.

• The test positive rate in the county is less than or equal to 5% in the preceding 14 days.

• Schools fully comply with sections 1-3 of the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance.

The guidance also allows remote and rural schools with less than or equal to 100 total students to continue operations.

According to Oregon statute, “remote” schools are defined as a public or private school that is located more than eight miles from any public school that serves any of the same grade levels.

Finally, schools would be able to accommodate students based on needed support. This includes supporting students with disabilities, and programs such as career technical education that may require hands-on demonstration of skills.

Local impact

After getting a heads up earlier in the week that this announcement was coming, Ontario School District Superintendent Nicole Albisu said that the district has been preparing a return to “comprehensive distance learning.”

During Monday’s meeting of the School Board, the starting date for the 2020-21 school year was unanimously moved back to Aug. 31 with the intent of having four weeks of distance learning to open the year and then moving into the hybrid model.

Calling the decision to open with distance learning a heart-wrenching one, Albisu said the district had to take into account the safety of the students and the many staff members of the district. As of Tuesday afternoon, there have been 289 deaths related to COVID-19 in Oregon. Of those, 97.2% are of people who are 50 years old and older.

“Although we truly believe that in-person, face-to-face instruction is the best for our students, we understand how important it is for us to help fight the battle and to limit the community spread of the virus,” Albisu said. “The key is to return as safely as possible, rather than as quickly as possible. Until then, we will continue to support students and families in this community through a comprehensive distance learning plan with hopes to safely phase back into in-person instruction for all students as soon as possible.”

Albisu added that the fall return to distance learning will be more thorough, as the spring version of distance learning had to be put together quickly. Ontario School District Director of Student Services Melissa Williams referred to the spring distance learning as “a crisis response” that was designed for a limited duration.

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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