JORDAN VALLEY — On Tuesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new metric-based approach to reopening Oregon schools after they closed in the spring due to the pandemic caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.
The numbers for reopening are as follows:
• County case rate: Less than or equal to 10 cases per 100,000 population in the preceding seven days.
• County test Positivity: Less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.
• State test positivity: Less than or equal to 5% in the preceding seven days.
The new restrictions also came with an exemption for students between kindergarten and third grade, remote and rural small schools, and students who require needed support (students with disabilities, career and technical education classes).
However, those restrictions also come with their own metrics in order to qualify:
• 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.
With Malheur County sitting well above both levels of metrics (269.5 cases per 100,000 in the last week and a positive rate of 17.5%) some of Oregon’s most remote educators are frustrated.
With less than 60 students in the whole district and a dizzying 70 miles distance from the nearest schools, Jordan Valley School District Superintendent Rusty Bengoa said he was not happy with the way his district fell under the Malheur County umbrella.
As of Thursday afternoon, he said he has never heard of any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Jordan Valley. The Oregon Health Authority releases weekly breakdowns of COVID-19 cases by zip code, but does not disclose the numbers for zip codes with fewer than 1,000 residents.
On Saturday, Oregon Health Authority stated there are 576 cases of COVID-19 in Malheur County (including confirmed cases and presumptive cases). On Wednesday, OHA released its Weekly Report, using data up until Sunday, saying that there were 562 cases of COVID-19 in the greater Ontario, Nyssa and Vale areas (the 97913, 97914 and 97918 zip codes).
Requests to Malheur County Health Department for exactly how many positive cases stem from the Jordan Valley area were not returned by press time.
Bengoa said Jordan Valley High School is expecting between 18 and 20 students in the 2020-21 school year, adding that the district won’t have any more than 10 students in a classroom at a time.
Located on a corner of Highway 95, Bengoa said Jordan Valley is not a big spot where people are stopping from out of town.
“Most of the time, someone goes to Jordan Valley for masonry or a construction project,” Bengoa said. “They’re not interacting with the community. And we’re distanced from every other gathering point in the county.”
Bengoa said he’s worried about the student population if there is no school this year.
“If there’s no classes, I’m going to lose kids,” Bengoa said. “Just like if there’s no sports, I’m going to lose kids.”
Bengoa said he’s been in contact with most of Jordan Valley’s teachers and they are unanimously for returning to school.
What they’re doing
In the meantime, Bengoa said members of the Jordan Valley School Board are in contact with Oregon Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who are able to connect with state leadership and petition on behalf of the remote schools in Oregon.
“Those guys, they are more aware of where we are at,” Bengoa said. “That’s case-wise and geographic-wise. Those reps are pushing for small schools to get a little more exemption.”
On Thursday evening, Findley and Owens held a virtual town hall, with one of the topics of discussion centering on the small remote schools of Malheur County.
Findley and Owens both voiced their concerns over the new reopening guidance, saying they thought Brown agreed to not have a “one size fits all” approach to reopening schools across the state.
Findley said he was hoping to meet directly with Brown on Friday in order to try and find a path for small, remote schools to reopen their doors.
At a previous School Board meeting, Jordan Valley schools’ starting date got pushed back to Aug. 21.
Bengoa said the district also has enough Chromebooks for every student in the district.
Remote distance learning
While some of Jordan Valley’s students are among the most remote students in the state of Oregon, Bengoa said the district had every family hooked up to the Internet. He said the school district provided three or four families with access to faster Internet, and there were a couple of families who live in extra remote areas where they use satellite internet (which Bengoa referred to as “kind of crummy”).
Even though the district has the capabilities to work via distance learning, Bengoa is adamant that the best thing for the students would be to be taught in the classrooms.
“We’re not set up, we’re not trained to be an online education program,” Bengoa said. “It’s a struggle. Some kids just don’t do well on a computer.”
Bengoa added that some families have three or four students in Jordan Valley schools and if parents are working, it would be difficult for them to help.