Echo School District

Light from classrooms spills into the darkened hallways at the Echo School District building as teachers prepare their classrooms and materials for remote learning on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

When Gov. Kate Brown announced new public health standards for schools to reopen, it allowed dozens of schools across rural Oregon to reopen.

But for most schools in Umatilla County, it won’t mean much in the short term, as Umatilla County still falls well short of the new, less-rigorous goal.

Under the new metrics, schools’ reopening status will now be evaluated over two-week intervals for case rates per 100,000 and test positivity rate, and designated into one of four zones.

In the green zone, all schools can reopen to students of all ages when a county records a case rate of 50 or fewer cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate below 5%.

In the yellow zone, elementary school students can return for some in-person instruction in a hybrid model when a county records a case rate of 100 or fewer cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate below 8%.

The orange zone is for counties to transition into preparing for in-person instruction when they’ve recorded 200 or fewer cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate below 10%.

When counties record rates above those figures, they’ll be in the red zone where no in-person instruction is permitted.

Umatilla County case numbers have been rising steadily in October. From Oct. 18-31, the Oregon Health Authority reported 223 new cases of the virus, which amounts to 274.8 cases per 100,000 people. The county’s test positivity rate was 17% during those two weeks.

In order to reach the orange zone, Umatilla County would need to report fewer than 162 cases over a two-week stretch, To reach the yellow zone, that number would need to drop below roughly 122 new cases over two weeks, and then even further to roughly fewer than 60 cases to reach the green zone.

Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara has mixed feelings about the new metrics but said Nov. 2 that he felt they were “a step in the right direction.”

“On one hand, it’s not really impacting us because we’re still quite a ways away from meeting the metrics to get kids back in school on a regular basis,” he said on Nov. 2. “On the other hand, I do like the direction they went with this.”

Though the state also dropped the previous requirement that schools remain closed unless the statewide test positivity rate also dropped below 5% for three consecutive weeks, Fiumara is concerned that the metric will continue to keep local schools closed.

“The same issues that went into it at the state level still apply at the county level, and so I’m still hopeful that eventually it will go away,” he said.

While online teaching will still be the primary method of educating children in Umatilla County for the foreseeable future, many local districts are taking advantage of an exception that allows them to bring in small groups of students for in-person instruction for a few hours each week.

The new set of rules further softened the rules around small-group learning, bumping up the maximum cohort size from 10 to 20 students and lifting the cap on the maximum number of students that can occupy a building.

Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the district is studying the new regulations to see if it should alter its small-group program, but there are logistical hurdles to consider like student transportation.

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said local districts unsuccessfully lobbied to increase the maximum number of in-person hours allowable under the small group exception, but overall, he was happy with the new rules.

That doesn’t necessarily mean local schools will be able to significantly expand their small group offerings.

The administrators agreed the new reopening metrics are attainable, but when they’ll meet them will be reliant on their communities’ ability to slow the spread.

“It’s up to us and the rest of Umatilla County,” Mulvihill said.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, Umatilla County has never recorded a test positivity rate below 10% since the metric began being tracked in July. That’s persisted despite previous declines in case numbers, and a handful of large-scale testing events sponsored by the state.

“I don’t know what else we’re supposed to be doing to get that lower,” Fiumara said.

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