New metrics make it easier for rural Oregon schools to reopen

By Emily Cureton (OPB) and Erin Ross (OPB)
Aug. 12, 2020
Click here for original OPB article.

The Oregon Department of Education has announced new health metrics that make it easier for rural schools to reopen. But districts are still trying to figure out what these benchmarks mean.

How and when Oregon kids will go back to classrooms is still an open question, with the opening of school fast approaching. This week, the state’s Department of Education bowed to pressure from rural community leaders and released new standards for in-person instruction in the state’s most sparsely-populated areas.

ODE Director Colt Gill said that the goal of these updated protocols is to allow rural schools the flexibility to reopen their doors while ensuring that any school-related outbreaks remain small.

“We want to make sure no local health authority would be overwhelmed by contact tracing. We want to reduce the number of students and staff interacting,” said Gill.

Counties with populations of less than 30,000 will be able to open, even if they don’t meet the statewide standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 residents. Those counties can open schools that serve fewer than 250 students if certain criteria are met. Conditions include limiting the total number of cases in a county over the previous three weeks to no more than 30. If more than half of those cases occurred in the final week of that three-week period schools would have to remain closed, because it could indicate increasing community transmission.

There can’t be any transmission happening in the school community and only schools where less than 10% of students travel from another area will qualify.

In counties with a population of fewer than six people per square mile, schools can reopen regardless of size if there have been fewer than 30 cases total in the last three weeks. The schools can’t serve a “significant number” of students commuting from other districts, and there can’t be active outbreaks in commuters’ hometowns.

“We’ll take what we can get given the circumstances, and we’re thankful the state was willing to hear the feedback of our rural communities and find a common-sense solution,” said Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson in a Tuesday press release.

ODE’s revisions mean that in her district, two of Central Oregon’s smallest schools — Paulina and Brothers — will open their doors next month. Crook County officials are among school administrators across the state scrambling to decipher the guidelines and decide which facilities can have kids attend classes in-person.

Adding to the uncertainty, ODE officials have said they expect to update the guidance a few more times before school starts.

“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mark Owens of the revised guidance for small population counties. The Republican from Crane represents Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — a vast swath of Oregon with a small fraction of the state population, where statewide rulemaking has long been a political target.

For months, Owens and other rural lawmakers have been advocating for rural school districts to be allowed to customize reopening plans with local public health officials: “I have no fear of COVID-19 spreading rapidly in our schools. If it does, actions will be taken, proper precautions will be maintained, and we’ll have lessons learned,” he said.

ODE said that rural health departments face unique challenges tracking and containing COVID-19. “For those very low population, but very large geographic counties, that does become a challenge,” said Gill, adding that health departments were consulted when making guidelines and that larger counties do have bigger health departments.

Owens also acknowledged that after years of budget cuts, and in some cases total defunding, many of the rural health departments these school plans now depend on “are not set up to deal with a global pandemic, or be successful without help.”

“The state is going to have to step up with some CARES Act funding in order to make sure that we can give them extra personnel,” Owens added.

Owens is married to a teacher, with a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

“I honestly feel that my family will be safer with the practices in place in school than they are when traveling to Home Depot, or traveling to some of the other things that are allowed currently,” he said.

If residents of one town frequently travel to another for work or to shop, outbreaks in those communities would also cause schools to close.

“We wanted provisions to address rural towns that are more of a bedroom community to a city that might be impacted by COVID-19,” Gill said, “[Local public health authorities] do need to understand if the majority of that community works in or shops in another community that is impacted, they’re not isolated.”

Because some rural towns are far apart or aren’t connected by major roads, some schools can stay open even if there is active community transmission in the county.

“The idea behind this guidance is that some of our very large geographic counties, where towns are spread out, could have an outbreak in one community, and then for thousands of square miles, no outbreaks,” Gill said.

That doesn’t just apply to in-state communities. Officials will also need to take into account outbreaks in nearby communities across state lines.

On the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Malheur County has become a hotspot for the virus in some areas, while other communities remain untouched. At over 10,000-square-miles, it’s the second-largest county in the state and a case study in the complexity of regulating Oregon’s diverse geography.

Zach Olson’s two kids were attending school in Nyssa, where the infection rate is nearly five times the state average, as of last week’s OHA report. It takes over an hour to drive from there, to the school in Jordan Valley, both within Malheur County.

Olson said he’s fortunate to be able to afford a nanny while his family juggles child care, and resentful that other kinds of business reopened before schools.

“Every day I walk by a closed elementary school and then numerous open bars, restaurants, and pot shops. The governor created that situation and it can not stand,” Olson said in an email.

The dad of two boys was critical of how often the guidelines have changed leading up to the start of the fall semester.

“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” he said.

The updated metrics also include exemptions for rural school districts in more populated counties. For urban schools to reopen, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 for three consecutive weeks. But rural schools can reopen if the school serves fewer than 250 people if there is no transmission in the community, and if they meet the same case metrics for counties with smaller populations

Many people in Oregon have reported delayed test results in the last month, sometimes waiting for as long as three weeks to find out if they have COVID-19. To make sure counties can identify outbreaks in time to close schools, presumptive cases do not need to be confirmed with a laboratory test to count.

As director of the Oregon Department of Education, Gill has the authority to close a school facility and address any complaints raised about flouting its guidance.

“These actions include the potential to withhold State School Fund (SSF) payments if needed and as a means of last resort,” according to the state guidelines.

Cultural Trust

July 22, 2020

Brian Rogers
Executive Director
Oregon Cultural Trust
775 Summer Street NE, Suite 200
Salem, OR 97301

Dear Director Rodgers,

As you begin the process for developing the guidance for the Oregon Business Development Department’s Statewide Cultural Support program, we want to highlight the critical cultural, economic and historical role county fairs and the County and Tribal Coalitions play within eastern and central Oregon.

The value our county fairs and fairgrounds bring to our communities cannot be overstated. These facilities provide year-round support for our entire community, not just during “fair week.” Fairgrounds across Oregon support their school districts, and agriculture and 4-H youth programs throughout the year with no-cost facility usage, not to mention the support these activities provide to small businesses and small business owners that rely on these activities. Nonagricultural programs such as dance, Junior ROTC, rodeo, and all traditional sports teams receive year-round fundraising support through use of these facilities. We urge you to recognize this value, prioritize these cultural venues and provide budgetary flexibility so that our communities can find
creative solutions that meet the needs of our communities.

Please work closely with our County and Tribal Coalitions when prioritizing the needs of local communities. Providing direct allocations to our County and Tribal Coalitions will ensure local participation during the vetting process and will maintain local expertise in the prioritization of projects.

Lastly, we ask that the Oregon Business Development Department maintain an equitable distribution of the Cultural Support dollars throughout the entire state. The Emergency Board has already provided direct allocation of $24 million to venues throughout this state. The remaining $27 can’t be viewed in isolation. The rich traditions of Oregon aren’t limited to Portland Metro. We must preserve and protect culture in every corner of this state by making sure the entire $50 million is the lens we use when determining a fair distribution.

We thank you for the critical work that you’re doing to preserve the cultural and venue needs of our communities during this COVID crisis.

Sincerely,

Cultural Trust Signatures

Sen. Findley and Rep. Owens share concerns with Governor Brown over early release

Honorable Governor Brown,

We write with collective concern over your recent decision to approve early release for adults in custody who are serving their time in state prisons, due to possible susceptibility to the Coronavirus.  Like you, our hope is that all Oregonians are safe, healthy and well during this unique and challenging time. However, early release of adults in custody will not prevent this exposure; the chance of contracting the virus in public is just as great.

Of particular concern is your statement that “In no case may an adult in custody be released if they present an unacceptable safety, security, or compliance risk to the community.”  Any adult in custody being granted early release poses a risk to the community because of the drastic underfunding of community corrections and support services.  Adults in custody will need housing, medical care, parole supervision, mental health services, job training and support, etc.  Our community services are already overwhelmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the incredible number of people who are out of work. What’s more, adults in custody would already have these services provided by the Oregon Department of Corrections while serving out their sentences in prison.

Our already-overloaded vital community services with be further strained by this decision.  Furthermore, releasing adults in custody during a pandemic increases the possibility of losing track of those individuals who would need to be monitored upon release.

Our legislative districts include both the largest and smallest prisons in the state, including the Snake River Correctional Facility (Ontario), Powder River Correctional Facility (Baker City), Deer Ridge Correctional Institution (Madras), and Warner Creek Correctional Facility (Lakeview).  Granting early release for even a few adults in custody from any of these facilities would be detrimental to the surrounding communities and support services.

We urge you reconsider your decision to allow an early release of adults in custody.  Our communities cannot provide the tools necessary for these individuals to succeed upon release at this time.

Sincerely,
Lynn Findley
State Senator, Oregon Senate District 30

Mark Owens
State Representative, House District 60

Cc: Director Colette Peters, ODOC

Lawmakers talk about pandemic’s effect on business, health care

Larry Meyer | Argus Observer | April 10

ONTARIO — State Senate District 30 and House Districts 59 and 60 held a joint virtual town hall Thursday, primarily discussing the issue that is keeping everyone apart, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy and health care.

The session hosted by Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Reps. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, was held via video and phone conference with invited participants.
Leading off in answering a question about the impact on business, Findley noted that “small business is the back bone of our economy,” and the need to is put people back to work.

The pandemic could bring a change in how we do business, he said, emphasizing, “we have to protect our people.”

Commenting that unemployment insurance applicants now number 88,000, Findley said people need to get a check for people to live on. He also said, the officials need to protect markets for what people are producing.

“You have to figure out how to keep people in their houses,” he said. “You have to figure how to keep commerce going.”

One of the things needed to move business forward, according to Owens, is to draw down the regulations which have been put in place because of the virus. Bonham said the Republican lawmakers are drafting a series of letters to Gov. Kate Brown, including one as for support of rural hospitals.

“We need to have a healthy, functioning health care apparatus,” he said. Bonham says he is appalled state leaders have not taken more action to protect the health-care providers.
On education, he said students would be ready to transition to the next level next year and the state the should be improving the technology to help learning.

Owens expressed concerns about rural hospitals, saying hospitals are bleeding cash. “If we lose any of the hospitals, we will lose the community,” he said. More testing is needed to track the virus and a vaccine is needed to control it, Owens said.

Bonham said a special session to address budget issues the costs of dealing with the pandemic will probably not happen until the next revenue forecast in May, pushing a session toward the end of May and possibly into June.

Findley said among things the three lawmakers are doing is keeping in contact with the county commissioners about county needs.

We need to flatten the curve, not the economy

By Senator Lynn Findley, Representative Mark Owens and Representative Daniel Bonham

Oregonians are experiencing unprecedented times and unforeseen challenges. The global pandemic is affecting each of us in different ways, but it is an equally confusing, scary, frustrating, and emotional time.

Even just a few weeks in, though, there is good news—Oregonians are staying home and staying healthy. The most recent modeling numbers from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) indicate that our combined efforts to abide by social distancing guidelines locally and across the state are working. It was reported on April 2 that the positive case numbers are down 50% to 70% from the earlier predictions.

One of our objectives, and the reason for such stringent measures, has been to “flatten the curve” and the Oregon Health Authority stated they will be able to tell us by the week of April 13 when we will reach this objective. This will be a key moment in our state. The restrictions are working, but the economic price we’re paying is becoming staggering. With each day that passes during this time, our local, regional and state economies are losing exponentially. Before we get to April 13 (or any other date certain), we must also understand what will be needed to get Oregonians back to work and doors open for business which will re-start our economy.

Despite much-needed and appreciated revenue and relief packages from our federal and state partners, no amount of stimulus can replace what Oregon’s economy can produce from inside the lines. The GDP of Oregon in 2018 was 213 billion. The Federal Stimulus package, or CARES Act, for Oregon appears to be 1.63 billion which means the federal funding is only three-days-worth of what Oregon’s economy can churn when it’s firing on all cylinders. Don’t get us wrong: this funding is absolutely necessary and will support us as an immediate and temporary means, but it will not and cannot solve the impacts felt by these drastic short-term measures, regardless of how necessary and helpful they have been.

We must get our economy working again by getting Oregonians working again, and this must happen as soon as possible. In order to do this safely, but quickly, there are a few things that must take place:

1. We need wide-scale testing so all Oregonians can be tested and once tested negative, start a system for allowing them to return to the workforce.
2. Ensure there is enough PPE in the state for our health care workers and first responders, particularly in eastern and rural Oregon.
3. A plan to protect our vulnerable populations as we re-enter the workforce and become a functional society again.
We can and must start addressing these issues immediately in parallel with following the measures to flatten the curve, prevent the spread of the virus and save lives. State leadership, of which we are a part of, needs to start this conversation today and open the table to regional leaders and other economic experts so we can find a way to invest money and resources to make these things happen.

Much like the Governor’s swift and necessary actions to stop the spread and flatten the curve in anticipation of the unknown, we need to take swift and necessary actions to prepare for what we do know. The longer Oregon’s economy has to keep it doors shut, the longer the recovery will take and the sharper the economic recovery curve will become.

Millions of Oregonians are relying on us to make sure they can recapture their livelihoods, protect their families and pay their bills. Oregon can’t wait any longer to start addressing these issues and getting back to work, while we all continue working together to flatten the curve and save lives.

2020 legislative session comes to abrupt ending; local lawmakers react to leaders’ decision

ONTARIO — With Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads over Senate Bill 1530, the cap and trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases, the Oregon Legislature’s short session ground to a halt Thursday afternoon as Republicans continued to deny both houses a quorum.

As the Senate neared a vote on the bill, Senate Republicans — with the exception of one — walked out to prevent the vote, followed by the House Republicans.

Democratic leaders hounded the Republicans for “not showing up for work,” with Senate President Peter Courtney calling the walkout “anarchy,” and saying if they are not going to serve, they should not run.

Republicans offered to return Sunday to help pass bills of their choosing, mainly budget bills, to conclude the session. However, Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek rejected that, with Kotek saying that all bills passed out of committee deserved to be voted on.

“This session is over,” Courtney said, as he adjourned Thursday’s afternoon session, saying the Senate will reconvene at the “call of the chair.”

“This session is functionally over,” Kotek said, as she adjourned the House, adding the House would reconvene at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, the scheduled time for adjournment for the short session.

‘Tactics used on our side are not long-term strategies’

“I am shocked at the Speaker’s decision to end the session prematurely, said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, in statement. “We still had time to pass necessary funding, time to address the needs of Oregonians across the state, but Democratic leaders chose to sacrifice these budget bills and shared priorities in the name of their no-compromise approach to cap-and-trade.”

District 60 Rep. Mark Owens, along with Drazan, and their Republican colleagues decided to join the Senate GOP in a walkout on Feb. 25 over the cap and trade initiative. Both State Representatives and Senators expressed a hope to get back to the session before it adjourned, however wanted Democrats — the supermajority — to refer the carbon reduction bill to voters. But that promise never came.

“I am very disappointed in the outcome of the short session,” Owens said in a phone interview this morning. “The Democrats took one bill and made all Oregonians lose in pushing that forward.”

The session was always about one bill for the supermajority he said, but there were several budgetary items to be addressed. The hope was to get back in the Capital on the final day of session on Sunday.

“We were willing to come in but once again, they decided to hold Oregon hostage and all of Oregon will suffer as a result of that action,” Owens said.

“Gov. [Kate] Brown made it evident yesterday that she plans to take executive action to combat her climate change crisis,” he said, adding that while she has the authority to take such action, he didn’t know how implementable it was.

The partisan politics struck a chord with Owens this session, increasing his desire to focus on them.

“My strong desire is to rebuild relationships,” he said. “The tactics used on our side are not long-term strategies with which to govern Oregon. We have to make sure our constituent base knows that the walkout is a very serious position. I hope never to have to do it again.”

District 30 State Sen. Lynn Findley defended the Senate Republicans, saying he has been working, not just at the Capital, keeping in contact with his constituents.

“About 90 percent of e-mails I have received are in support of what the Republicans are doing,” he said.

Thursday, before the Legislature was adjourned, Findley said he was hopeful the Legislature would back into session on Sunday.

Republicans lobbied to have a bill put on the ballot for a vote of the people, but that was also rejected by the majority Democrats.

The House Rules Committee met Thursday afternoon to hear from Republicans who had been subpoenaed to explain their absences. When no Republican lawmaker showed up the committee adjourned after hearing from legislative council.

Planning changes

Owens said the Democrats are planning a “three-prong approach” to keep a walkout from being effective again: They will refer the matter to Oregon voters to change the constitution reducing the two-thirds needed to pass bills to a simple majority; they will change the terminology so that in a long session only days when a quorum is present count as a session day so that no party can “run the clock out”; and, Owens said, the other approach will be to assess fines on any lawmakers that have unexcused absences, with a certain number of those absences leading to a lawmaker’s release from office.

The Senate Rules Committee approved Senate Joint Resolution 201 which would end the two-thirds majority requirement for a quorum in either house and go to a simple majority with an amendment to the Oregon Constitution, which would require a vote of the people.

Oregon is only one of our states that requires a two-thirds majority of lawmakers to be present for a quorum, according to comments made the during the committees ‘ work session by Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, who chairs the committee.

Courtney and Kotek said they will convene a meeting the Emergency Board to deal major budget items such as flood relief for Umatilla County.