County commissioners declare local emergency – for kids

Scott Swanson

By Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Linn County Commissioners last week determined to step up for local kids by approving a declaration of local emergency in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s July 28 order that students in fourth grade and above in counties failing to meet certain COVID-19 metrics would start the fall online.

The declaration was approved Aug. 4 by Board Chairman Roger Nyquist and commissioners John Lindsey and Will Tucker.

“The three of us really thought kids are getting the short end of this,” Tucker said, adding that youngsters’ lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus response, especially with the closure of schools.

Nyquist said the resolution is an attempt to focus on young people’s needs.

“Throughout this crisis, policy makers at every level have been making decisions that, in our mind, haven’t properly considered kids,” he said. “This is our attempt to do that – reasonable people taking reasonable action.”

The guidelines from the state mandate distance learning for school districts in regions that fail to meet certain COVID-19 metrics for three weeks straight. Those metrics are 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day period, a test positivity rate of 5 percent or less in that same period, and a state metric of the same test positivity rate.

Linn County does not meet that standard, which means students in grades 4 through 12 in Sweet Home and other school districts and private schools within the county will be required learn from home instead of attending school in person in fall, based on the metrics established the Oregon Department of Education.

The Commission’s resolution states that the existence of the coronavirus in Linn County and the state’s criteria for reopening schools have had a “profound effect on Linn County’s children who have suffered damage to their social development, physical health and mental health as a result of the pandemic including, but not limited to not meeting the following needs of children.”

“Children need the opportunity to develop social skills; children need time with adults other than parents; children need organized physical activities,” the resolution says.

It notes an increase in “suicide, without strong and consistent intervention and access to trained teachers and mental health professionals” and goes on to call such issues “a serious threat to the peace, health and welfare of the children of Linn County.”

The commissioners list several “extraordinary measures (that) must be implemented to limit or eliminate the effects of the COVID-19 reopening criteria:”

— Supporting the creation of “new reopening criteria focused on allowing children to safely play and interact;”

— Using the resources of organizations that serve children – schools, youth clubs, churches, after-school programs, local government – to provide physical space and resources;

— Calling on school districts, the Oregon Department of Education, the state Department of Health and Human Services, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and other after-school activity organizations to work together to offer “consistent opportunities that families can count on;” and

— Directing that state and federal monies be dedicated to getting youth activities opened “now,” with funding to support additional staff needed to deliver activities in smaller groups.

Tucker said he sees kids’ lives disrupted in a multiplicity of ways – summer vacations, lost opportunities to engage with other adults besides their parents, lost opportunities to develop social skills.

“Parents are not really prepared to teach,” he added.

Nyquist said Monday morning that a meeting was planned for Tuesday, Aug. 11, to bring together countywide leaders, including Sweet Home City Manager Ray Towry and Kris Latimer, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Greater Santiam, to discuss how to distribute $1 million in unspent federal coronavirus relief funds the county has received. He said the group would prepare a grant application and then will meet 10 days later to consider applications for the funds.

He said the county is “engaged with governor’s office,” which is expected to issue guidelines on Tuesday for non-school children’s activities.

“There’s a discrepancy between what schools are able to do and what the Boys & Girls Club can,” he said. “The state hasn’t said they don’t support the idea. They just said they don’t have any more money.”

He said he personally thinks the county’s grant money should be used to expand offerings or increase capacity for the Boys & Girls Club and other organizations “that do things for kids.”

“This is an alternative to that, to give kids an opportunity to develop social skills and other things involved in growing up that they haven’t been able to do the last five months,” Nyquist said.

Tucker noted that the commissioners don’t have the power to reopen schools, but “we think the legislature needs to think about kids.”

He said private schools believe they can open safely and “a guy in Scio ran a summer camp safely.”

He said the county can offer building space and facilitate the use of churches and other buildings that might be available.

“We’re looking for things we can do exercise leadership, guidance to make things better, and get the attention of the governor and the legislature.

“That’s what it’s all about. We’re trying to say that children are critically important.”