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Rural Lawmakers Push Back On Oregon School Reopening Plan

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference to address the coronavirus pandemic in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020.

Frustration over 'unattainable' metrics leads to negotiations between state officials and rural leaders.

Rural Republicans are pushing back on the health requirements Gov. Kate Brown has put in place for school districts to bring students back to campus.

“The metrics they’ve put out are unattainable,” said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane.

He’s among a contingent of eastern Oregon lawmakers who want local officials, not state leaders, to decide the rules around schools.

On Friday, the rural leaders convened a call between Gov. Brown and state directors of education and health, with rural superintendents and county health officials. State officials agreed to form a work group in search of compromise.

“One of the hallmarks of this pandemic has been lots of trial and error, learning things, and making course corrections, and this conversation is consistent with that end,” Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said on the call.

“We, like you, are committed to getting kids physically in school,” Allen added.

Rising coronavirus cases, and the state’s requirements for reopening schools in person, make online classes inevitable in most school districts. But, Rep. Owens said online learning is not a solution for most people he represents.

“It’s an equity issue,” he told constituents at a virtual town hall with other GOP lawmakers Thursday.

Owens’ legislative district includes places that have been largely spared infection so far, such as Grant and Harney counties. But he also represents includes areas with un-contained outbreaks, such as Malheur County on the border with Idaho.

“I strongly do not believe the Ontario school district is in a position to reopen,” Owens told OPB.

He wants each school district’s plan to be locally determined, and he expressed skepticism that resuming in-person instruction will spread the virus.

“I don’t believe it is in our best interest to arbitrarily close bars and restaurants again, but if the local public health authority can’t test and trace new cases, I’m open to the conversation,” he said.

At the town hall, Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, addressed critics of his position on schools.

“To say that because we want to send kids back to school, we’re willing to sacrifice lives and compromise people’s health and safety, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Bonahm said.

“Everything has an element of risk to it. And we make calculated risks, and we try to do the best for the majority of constituents we serve.”

The governor’s metrics state for schools to reopen the county where the school is located must have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day span for three consecutive weeks. The test positivity rate in the county also needs to be 5% or lower over a seven-day span for three weeks in a row.

There are exceptions to the rule, too, for rural schools and for students in grades K-3. School districts in many rural communities are small, and have fewer than 100 students. Those districts also need to have a positivity rate below 5%, but infection rates can be up to 30 out of 100,0000 for three consecutive weeks. That’s also the case for students in grades K-3. There also can’t be any active outbreaks in a community.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Emily Cureton Cook is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Emily is the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.