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OSHA investigating local school

The Oregon Department of Education has asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate Medford’s Cascade Christian High School for “not complying with (COVID-19) metrics, facemasks and physical distancing,” according to OSHA Public Information Officer Aaron Corvin.

ODE referred the case to OSHA Nov. 12, and it remains active, said Corvin, who added he cannot comment on the specifics of an active investigation.

Cascade Christian High School is one of three schools that comprise the 501c3 nonprofit Grace Cascade Christian Schools — Cascade Christian Middle School and Grace Christian Elementary are the others — and all have been open to full in-person instruction, bucking state mandates for schools in the process, since late September or early October (the high school and middle school reopened Sept. 21, and the first day of school at Grace Christian Elementary was Oct. 1).

Under the latest metrics released Oct. 30 by the Oregon Department of Education, counties with fewer than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate lower than 5% over 14 straight days are eligible for on-site learning, while 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate between 5% and 8% places a county in a hybrid of on-site and comprehensive distance learning.

Jackson County is nowhere near meeting the standards for the hybrid model, let alone full on-site learning. The most recent two-week span measured, from Nov. 1 through Nov. 14, saw 424.77 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of 17.4%.

Grace Cascade Christian Schools, which according to its website has “over 700 students and 100 staff members” spread out over its two sites, could not be reached for comment. Head of Schools Ken Townsend, however, addressed Grace Cascade’s decision to open in a 1,200-word letter to parents that was posted on the school’s website before the start of school. In it, Townsend explained that in-person attendance would be voluntary, highlighted the schools’ safety plan (a full version of that 14-page document is also online) and expressed the reasoning behind the move.

“We believe this pandemic must be respected but cannot be feared,” Townsend wrote. “We believe life is precious, but we are more than physical beings, and schools enable parents to work, which drives the economic engine of our community and our enduring well-being.

“Our intent is to fully respect this pandemic while we also fully respect the physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our students, families and community. I hope and trust Grace Cascade can provide an education for all our families and find common unity despite differing personal views and thoughts about COVID-19 and its impact on each of us and our community.”

Corvin said the length of time the investigation will require varies, as does the potential fine. Under OSHA’s penalty rules, for instance, a serious violation that is not a willful or repeated violation carries a penalty that can range from $100 to $12,675. A willful violation carries a penalty that can range from $8,900 to $126,749. A willful violation occurs when “an employer has demonstrated either an intentional or purposeful disregard for the requirements of the Oregon Safe Employment Act or a plain indifference to employee safety and health.” According to Corvin, a serious violation exists when the violation results in or has the potential to cause serious physical harm or death.

Since March, Corvin reported, Oregon OSHA has issued 50 citations to employers for violating requirements to protect workers from COVID-19. Penalties for non-willful violations ranged from $100 to $2,000, while penalties for willful violations ranged from $8,900 to $14,000. On Oct. 22, Oregon OSHA announced that it had fined a general contractor in Roseburg, Mid Oregon Builders, more than $38,000 for “multiple serious job safety violations, including repeatedly failing to follow the minimum requirements to protect workers from fall hazards that could kill them.”

While OSHA can issue fines and citations, it cannot force businesses to shut down, Corvin noted. Still, he added, it does expect businesses to follow through on its recommendations and refusal to correct violations can increase penalties substantially.

Regarding the pending investigation, Corvin could only speak in broad terms about what the process looks like. It’s possible, he said, that a referral or complaint may be resolved without a formal enforcement visit to the businesses in question.

“And we typically will engage with an employer when we receive a referral or a complaint — we can do that by phone, we can do that by email, we can do that by letter,” he said. “And we can get a sense of what are you doing to address what’s alleged here in the complaint or the referral. Now, if the employer’s refusing to engage, if it seems like it’s not going in the right direction, then we can certainly open a formal enforcement visit. And when we open a formal enforcement visit, or an inspection, that is the only time when you begin to talk about the potential for violations to be identified and a citation to be issued — and a citation if it’s issued can carry monetary penalties.”

An investigation could take weeks or even months, Corvin said, depending on whether an on-site investigation is called for. And if it comes to that, he said the focus would be on the employees.

“But ultimately,” he said, “we do not close down businesses, nor do we prohibit work, per se. For us, it’s about regulating the work and to ensure that it’s to the degree possible hazard-free for workers. If we can eliminate the hazard, reduce the hazard, get rid of it, and are they complying with requirements to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. But we don’t shut businesses down, bottom line.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Students leave class at Cascade Christian High School Tuesday. The school, one of three — including Cascade Christian Middle School and Grace Christian Elementary — operated by a nonprofit is under investigation for violating state protocols regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune