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Grace Christian probe should focus on employees

The state investigation of Cascade Christian High School for potential violations of COVID restrictions shows the limits of the government’s ability to enforce public health rules involving the pandemic.

The investigation is being conducted by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces rules designed to protect workers. The state Department of Education, which has no jurisdiction over private schools, requested the OSHA probe on Nov. 12.

OSHA says it is investigating Cascade Christian for “not complying with (COVID-19) metrics, facemasks and physical distancing.”

The school’s compliance with masking and distancing remain to be seen. But Cascade is clearly violating state metrics for school reopenings, and has been since September.

Oregon counties are eligible to restart in-person instruction if they have fewer than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate lower than 5% for 14 straight days. At 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate between 5% and 8%, a county is eligible for a hybrid reopening. Jackson County is nowhere near reaching either threshold.

Grace Cascade Christian Schools, the nonprofit entity that includes the high school, a middle school and an elementary school, posted a letter to parents on its website from Head of Schools Ken Townsend explaining the decision to open, stressing that it would be voluntary.

Voluntary for students and their parents, certainly. Whether that’s true for employees ought to be a key focus of the OSHA investigation.

Grace Cascade’s elaborate safety plan, also posted online, states, “We respect the right of teachers to stay at home in the interest of their health and safety during this pandemic. As possible, teachers will be allowed to request a leave of absence or, if possible, to Distance Teach from home and use Google Meet and Google Classroom to deliver content to their students.”

“As possible” and “if possible” provide a great deal of leeway to the employer. If teachers who did not want to teach in person were pressured or required to do so because of student demand, even as public schools remain closed, that ought to concern OSHA investigators.

We have no way of knowing the specifics about Cascade Christian’s operations. We do know that the safety plan was drawn up in August. Much has changed since then, including a huge surge in infections.

The school’s plan is thorough, prescribing regular sanitizing of surfaces, distancing in classrooms and hallways and requiring students to stay home if they are sick.

Masks are optional when students are in their classroom seats and “physically distanced” at least 6 feet.

Many parents would like to see all schools reopen, but public school districts are following the state guidelines. Grace Cascade Christian Schools have decided to defy those guidelines. We hope school employees are not unwilling participants in that experiment.