Highland Hills

Students in Bailey Watson’s first grade class settle in Aug. 30, 2021, for the first day of school at Highland Hills Elementary School in Hermiston. The Oregon Health Authority reported the Hermiston School District as of Sept. 22 had 36 students with COVID-19 and seven staff cases.

The continued surge in new COVID-19 cases in Umatilla County is beginning to take a toll on the local education system.

On Wednesday, Sept. 29, Blue Mountain Community College announced it was putting its Pendleton campus under quarantine, moving all classes and services online through Oct. 13. The BMCC campuses in Hermiston, Boardman, Milton-Freewater and Baker City remain fully open.

In an interview, BMCC President Mark Browning said college leaders made the decision after a staff member tested positive for the virus.

“It’s the safest thing to do,” he said.

According to Browning, the staff member got tested after learning they had been exposed to someone who already tested positive for COVID-19. Their test came back positive on Sept. 28, despite being vaccinated and asymptomatic. Browning said it is Blue Mountain’s only confirmed case, but the college wanted to quarantine the campus to prevent any further spread and sanitize its facilities.

The county’s two largest K-12 school districts have avoided a large-scale return to distance learning, but they still are feeling the impacts of COVID-19

In the Pendleton School District, Superintendent Chris Fritsch said the district is experiencing an uptick in students in quarantine after Round-Up week, which the district has typically granted students and staff as a day off. In a Sept. 28 interview, Fritsch said 125 students were in quarantine, either because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or because they had been exposed to the virus. The Oregon Health Authority issues weekly reports on outbreaks in schools, and its most recent report from Sept. 22, documented eight Pendleton students and two staff as contracting COVID-19 since the start of the school year.

Still, Fritsch said he thinks the beginning of the school year has gone well considering Pendleton started its school year as COVID-19 was peaking around the state. The quarantined students represent about 5% of Pendleton’s student body, and students are sent home with laptops so they can continue their schoolwork. No classes or buildings have been shut down completely because of an outbreak, Fritsch said.

In talks with Umatilla County Public Health, Fritsch said most student cases were being traced back to their households.

Hermiston School District Superintendent Tricia Mooney said she hadn’t had the chance to check with the public health department about the origins of her district’s cases, but the county’s largest school district also has the county’s most cases, recording 36 student cases and seven staff cases, according to the Sept. 22 Oregon Health Authority report.

Based on attendance reports, Mooney estimated the number of students that have come down with the virus is much higher. But Hermiston also has avoided shutting down classes or schools, Mooney said.

“I’m going to do everything in our power to keep schools open,” she said.

While the number of students and staff directly affected by COVID-19 is relatively small in districts the size of Hermiston and Pendleton, a few cases can go much further in a district such as Helix, which has one of the smallest student bodies in the state.

Helix has had nine students and eight staff test positive for the virus since the year began. For staff members, that represented about one-third of their ranks.

Helix Superintendent Brad Bixler said staff didn’t test positive for the virus all at once, which gave the district the flexibility to bring in substitutes as needed and avoid shutting down classes or the school. With its most recent case coming on Sept. 8, Bixler said Helix is back at full strength.

Bixler said parents have done a good job of communicating with the district and keeping their students home if they think they’ve been exposed or sick. Like its neighboring district to the south, Helix is keeping an eye out to see if Round-Up will have an effect on students or staff.

While the Helix School District’s coverage area doesn’t intersect with Pendleton, a significant amount of Helix’s students and staff commute from Pendleton. Bixler said he’s “crossing my fingers” that Helix won’t see new cases arise from the rodeo.

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