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Jackson County commissioners say school reopening metrics unattainable

Jackson County Commissioners said Gov. Kate Brown has set such strict standards for the reopening of schools that they are virtually unattainable.

“It sets the bar at a level I don’t think is attainable,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer.

In order for kids in fourth grade and above to have in-person school, Jackson County must have 22 or fewer new COVID-19 cases per week for three weeks in a row, according to metrics tied to counties’ populations that Brown announced last week.

Kids in kindergarten through third grade can go to school if the county has 66 or fewer cases per week for three weeks in a row.

Jackson County’s case count far exceeds the parameters for students in fourth grade and above.

The county had 60 cases for the week that started July 12, 54 cases during the week starting July 29 and 94 cases last week.

The spike in cases to 94 last week also pushed the county out of compliance for kids in kindergarten through third grade to return to school in person.

Jackson County last achieved a case count that would allow older kids to return to school back in June — when the county and most of the state were emerging from widespread restrictions on the economy meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Dyer said officials knew cases would rise as restrictions lifted, but counties were able to stockpile personal protective equipment like masks, set up COVID-19 contact tracing programs and boost medical capabilities.

Dyer said part of Jackson County’s rising COVID-19 count is tied to the spread of the virus, while part of the increase is the result of more widespread testing.

Jackson County hit a new record of 1,860 tests on the week that started July 19, the most recently reported week. The county had 1,303 tests in the previous week.

Part of the increase came as the county encouraged testing of seasonal agricultural workers coming into the area to work in pear orchards, vineyards, hemp fields and other agricultural sites as harvest season approaches. The county is also distributing face masks, gloves and other protective gear for workers.

In her announcement last week, Brown said she was setting a less rigorous standard for young kids to return to school because they have lower rates of transmission and illness from the COVID-19 virus. She said in-person learning for young children is critical for them to develop the reading, language and social skills they need for long-term success.

Since Brown’s announcement, local school districts that had been planning for a mix of in-person and online school this fall went back to the drawing board.

Across Oregon, only Wheeler County had few enough cases to allow all kids to go back to school in person, according to state data.

However, schools aren’t allowed to open there either because a statewide metric of a 5% or less positivity rate for COVID-19 tests must also be met. Oregon had 5.1% to 5.9% of COVID-19 tests come back positive each week during July. The positivity rate crept up to 6.1% for the week ending Aug. 1, state data shows.

“The policy creates a situation where we won’t see kids back in school,” Dyer said.

Jackson County’s positivity rate ranged from 1.5% to 3% through most of July, according to state data available through July 25.

Dyer said students learn better when they are physically present at school. He also worries about the fate of kids on the margins.

“Kids at risk and on the border may slip through the cracks,” he said.

Households with working parents who can’t send their kids to school will also face strain, Dyer said.

A father with experience coaching youth sports, Dyer previously launched a movement called Let Them Play to advocate for students being able to return to school sports. Without in-person school, school sports are in jeopardy.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said many parents are now scrambling to figure out what to do this fall.

“I think our schools need to be open. I know a lot of parents who are in a bit of a panic about how to educate their kids,” she said. “What does a parent do who is trying to work and educate their children? Schools worked hard on their plans to open.”

Roberts said counties in Southwest Oregon have communicated to the governor that the bar has been set very high for reopening schools. She said she doesn’t know if the standards will be lowered to more attainable levels.

Roberts said Jackson County is not meeting the standards, especially for older students.

“We’re way off as far as qualifying to get schools open,” she said.

In her announcement last week, Brown said in-person school in general is better for students academically, socially, mentally and physically. However, families are facing a highly contagious virus.

“And when there are lots of COVID-19 cases spreading in the community, then the likelihood that the virus will spread at schools also increases,” Brown said.

She said the state has to take a cautious and careful approach.

Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County’s public health official, said he doesn’t know what the right standards are for the reopening of schools.

“But I think any time you’re looking at any kind of opening up that brings our citizens together in closer contact, that puts people at risk,” he said.

Shames said it’s wise to look at disease activity in the community when making decisions about any kind of reopening, whether it’s schools or large entertainment venues like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser said he doubts schools will be able to meet the state metrics to reopen, although he said it’s up to school districts to analyze the situation and implement plans.

“My gut instinct is it will be very tough to attain,” he said.

Strosser said decision-makers are trying to move forward in a world of unknowns without crystal clear answers.

He noted research shows kids are less susceptible to severe complications and death from COVID-19 than adults.

“But I would sure hate to be the parent of the child who was the exception to that,” Strosser said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

An empty classroom at Rogue River Elementary School. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]