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Regional Interests

Baker School District prepares for fall

For the first time in a long time, all students in the Baker School District will have the option to start the school year this fall in person full time. There are also full seasons of sports and extracurricular activities planned. And, in accordance with state guidelines, all students will be wearing masks. Superintendent Mark Witty joins us to discuss what the school year will look like for students in his district.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: A week and a half ago Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced that all students and staff in K-12 schools will have to wear masks while inside. The mask policy is in response to the statewide surge in new COVID-19 infections brought on by the Delta variant. It’s a big change in what districts were expecting this school year, a statewide mandate as opposed to pure local control. Mark Witty is Superintendent of the Baker School District. Before we get to masks, and mandates and county health departments, I’m just curious what you’re looking forward to this school year?

Mark Witty: In comparison to last year, we’re super excited that we’re going to be able to start school in person and have instruction for all grades during a normal schedule. And last year there was a lot of impact on our extracurricular events as well as on academics. And we’re going to have an opportunity to start with a regular schedule for athletic and extracurricular programs. So those two things would be really good to look forward to as we hit the fall.

Miller: The novelty, for example, of playing football in the fall, as opposed to football in the spring?

Witty: I think we’re just super stoked that we’re going to be able to get those programs up and going. Of course, our concern is that we keep people healthy and safe as we do it. But based on last year’s protocols and everything that we did, we believe we can.

Miller: Baker County Health officials recently announced the highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began as one of those counties that set a record during this surge, as opposed to earlier ones. Meanwhile, your district has been having weekly meetings with members of the Health Department. What have you been hearing from them recently?

Witty: Well, I think first and foremost we’re appreciative of the partnership that local health departments have with school districts and the superintendent. So we’re really appreciative of the Baker County Health Department. I think one of the things that we’re quite concerned about is the Delta variant. They’re telling us that it’s at least two times more transmittable. And we’re starting to see more individuals taken to Boise Idaho, the nearest hospital that manages COVID patients. They are starting to see patients that normally would have been treated in the Boise area, having to be sent and get their services here locally. And we’re also starting to see a few more kids, a higher percentage of kids just in the last two weeks, with COVID-19 than what we’ve seen in the past.

Miller: Summer school has been more robust this summer in Baker County and many other places. Prior to the governor’s new mandate, masks were required for students and staff for grades K-6. What was the thinking behind that earlier decision?

Witty: In summer school earlier we had local control on that and we made some decisions about how to operate with masks in those settings.

Miller: We’ll get to the statewide mandate that affects everybody in every building for all ages right now. But you made the decision on your own to require masks for younger grades, for grades K-6. And I’m wondering how you came to that local decision?

Witty: Well prior to the mandate coming out, we had had masks worn while students were crossing cohorts, essentially on school buses, which is federal law. So we had operated that way.

Then once the mandate came out on April 2nd, we visited with our local Health Department and realized that the Delta variant [of COVID-19] was here. So we went ahead and determined that it would be best, to be able to keep most kids in summer school, if we wore masks as one of the factors that we utilized to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19. So it was an easy decision really, because we want to keep our students, our staff and the greater community safe. We listen closely to what the Health Department is telling us.

Miller: What were your plans going to be for the coming school year itself before the Governor announced the statewide mask mandate. Were you considering your own local mandate that everybody had to wear masks?

Witty: We were moving into the fall under the notion that K-6 students would be wearing face coverings when they were crossing with other cohorts of students because the vaccine was not available to them. Then all students on the bus in the transportation system. [With grades] 7-12 we were going to push choice and really encourage the use of face coverings, but we weren’t going to require it. Of course, that was prior to recognizing that the Delta [variant] had been into our County.

Miller: So it’s possible that the Delta variant would have actually led you to a local mandate, like the statewide one. You hadn’t made that decision yet. But was that a possibility?

Witty: It was a possibility. Clearly, when the mask requirement came out, we were heading in a different path. And clearly our citizenry here, and it’s hard to tell the exact percentages, but I think it’s probably 50-50 split. There was just a strong reaction from our local parents and families about the universal reinstitution of the mask mandate. So it definitely has created some challenges for us. There’s no question about that.

Miller: There’s a Facebook group that was formed with anti-masking families, in response to the statewide mandate that has, at last I looked, close to 1000 members in this group. What have you heard from them?

Witty: I [have heard] the things a lot of Superintendents have heard, all the way from ‘face coverings don’t actually work’, ‘personal choice’ and ‘personal freedom’, along those notions.There’s some who just don’t believe that we’re really in this level of concern. So we’re listening to those concerns and we’re definitely taking that information. As we think about our face coverings and how we move into the fall, we’re definitely [not wearing them] outside, you wouldn’t have to wear face coverings while eating. We’ll take frequent breaks where students could take off a mask if they request and if they get one soiled, we’ll replace it. Then we’ll try to operate reasonably, like the opportunity to go outside and do some instruction outside.

So we’re trying to take those things into consideration, but also recognizing that we have families who send children to school who do have health issues. Those family members might have health issues or their extended family might. We have staff that could and do have health issues. So we want to make sure and be respectful of keeping everybody safe as we move through this. We want to do everything we can to make that happen. But, at the end of the day, we want to have more local governance. We want to have a collaboration with the Governor and their team and get back to where we were last fall, where we’d work and collaborate together.

We were successful at doing it and came up with some not a one-size-fits-all-type of solution, solutions that would take into account more local data such as the infection rate, the regional hospital availability and those types of components. [Then we could] go ahead and make a decision as to whether or not you move into masks or you move out. So, we really would argue that there ought to be some local governance and control back at this level.

Miller: You’re not alone in making the argument that you just made, arguing for more local control. That’s something that we’ve seen in the last week and a half from many different school districts in Oregon, especially in more rural areas or politically, in more conservative ones. What have you heard back in response to those pleas for more local control?

Witty: I think we’re in the beginning process of engaging in that conversation. We have an opportunity tomorrow to make those points clear with the Governor and governor’s team and OHA. We also recognize that they have responsibilities and accountability too. I mean, they are in a position that’s challenging, there’s no question about that. But we want to be able to get in that collaboration and have those making those rules recognize that we have to be part of the equation. Our local populations have to be part of that discussion. One size doesn’t really fit all. I could give you multiple examples of school districts that are in isolated areas, low population areas and they don’t really have the [Delta] variant there. So we definitely want to have that opportunity to have some ability to have a variance depending on the local situation.

Miller: Well, maybe we can get a short preview of what that conversation might be like on Wednesday, August 11. We’re talking with Colt Gill, Head of the Oregon Department of Education, and Dean Sidelinger, the State Epidemiologist, What do you most want to tell them or what do you most want to hear from them?

Witty: First and foremost, I want to make sure that OHA and the Governor’s office recognize the challenges that this has put Superintendents and publicly elected Boards in. It is a super challenging time. We are caught in the crosshairs somewhat. I also want to make sure that they understand that we know that they have accountability and stewardship over certain things. But we can add to that conversation. We can bring in some data points and some ideas on how more local governance can be shifted back to where we can manage our communities and take into account our conditions locally. So I’m hoping that we’ll be able to find a way to engage and collaborate on solutions moving forward, to give more flexibility at the end of the day while also keeping in mind the health and safety of our students. I’ve got to have a workforce. I have a responsibility to keep them healthy as well as the students. So I need a healthy staff or I won’t be able to keep students in school and in-person. So we recognize that there are things that need to be done. We just want flexibility and engagement in the process, both from a Superintendent lens and from a Board lens.

Miller: Mark Witty is Superintendent of the Baker School District.

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