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Oregon Department of Education and other state leaders need to work with Crook County educators

Going into the beginning of this week, the Crook County School District finds itself in a situation like the end of August.

At that time, the county had managed for two consecutive weeks to meet the strict metrics established for grades 4-12 to return to in-person education. Educators were optimistic that the community would meet the same threshold of COVID cases for a third crucial week in a row.

As we all know, that didn't happen. Too many cases emerged during that third week, and Crook County's 4-12 grade students started the school year at home.

Having started over on a new three-week cycle, the community has once again made it through two weeks and educators are again hoping to get through a third week with low enough numbers.

But it won't be easy. How many cases did it take to end the last three-week run? Three. That's right, Crook County must have two or fewer presumptive or confirmed cases per week for three straight weeks before grades 4-12 can go back into the school buildings. This is because the threshold is set at 10 cases per 100,000 people.

This creates a situation where larger counties have a lot more wiggle room than smaller counties like Crook. For example, in Deschutes County, where about 202,000 people live, it would take more than 20 cases in a week to push them over the line. In Multnomah County, that number would be 81.

On the flipside, in counties with fewer than 10,000 residents, one case in any three weeks would ruin any chance of grades 4-12 returning to class. So, exemptions were established for smaller rural counties with low case totals that enables students to return to school. For counties with a population density of less than six people per square mile, schools are able to work with local health officials to return to in-person school if the county's total COVID cases in the last three weeks is less than or equal to 30 per 100,000 people, with less than half of those cases coming in the last week of the three-week period. For school districts that serve a small population — fewer than 75 students — schools can work with local health authorities, even if the county does not meet the criteria of reopening.

Crook County is small, yet too big to qualify for those exemptions, leaving them in the unenviable position of needing nearly perfect numbers to make the cut. The community might make it through this week with two or fewer cases, but if it doesn't, the clock is reset for another three weeks.

Sensing that Crook County students might have to wait a long time to return to class, despite the community having a continually low case total, local educators decided to seek an exemption of their own. Wednesday, the district sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Education requesting a pilot designation. Educators would create a hybrid, in-person instructional model that would rotate students in and out of the buildings each week. The school district would designate certain days for students to be in the classroom and other days to learn online from home. Students would remain in specific cohorts to limit interaction and prevent the spread of COVID if a student or staff member tests positive.

Hopefully, state officials let common sense prevail. Since the pandemic first crossed Oregon borders, Crook County's case totals have remained low. In addition, schools have seen no adverse consequences from bringing K-3 students back to classrooms, and school leaders have stuck to strict policies that help prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Oregon Department of Education and other state leaders need to work with Crook County educators. A county with low case totals, no outbreaks and good policies in place at the schools should not be held to a nearly impossible standard. Teachers want students to return and kids are eager to go back to actual classrooms and interact with instructors and peers in person. And parents who are currently struggling to maintain a weekly work schedule while supervising their distance-learning students are undoubtedly ready for a return to in-person education. It's time for Crook County kids to go back to school.


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