UMATILLA COUNTY — Banding together as a region, the 12 school districts of Umatilla and Morrow counties signed a pact that will freeze new transfers among these districts for the 2020-21 school year.

The moratorium went into effect on the same day the letter was dated, although students who had transferred into districts prior to the moratorium would be allowed to stay at their schools.

“The (superintendents of) Umatilla and Morrow (counties) have long shared a collaborative working relationship in the best interest of our families and students,” the Aug. 4 letter states. “We value school choice and worked very hard to honor our families’ decisions. For years, we accomplished this through the interdistrict transfer process.

“Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted how our schools will operate this year. As we plan for the many challenges we face, we made the difficult decision to suspend the interdistrict transfer process for the 2020-2021 school year.”

At an Aug. 10 Pendleton School Board meeting, Superintendent Chris Fritsch said each district’s superintendent hammered out the deal over a video chat meeting.

As it stands now, all districts in Umatilla and Morrow counties are preparing for distance learning in the fall as both counties are trying to recover from a prolonged surge in new COVID-19 cases and deaths.

But case counts can vary dramatically from community to community, and Fritsch said there is some concern that some schools may obtain a competitive advantage if the Oregon Department of Education starts allowing schools to open by ZIP code rather than county.

InterMountain Education Service District Mark Mulvihill, who also signed his name to the letter, called the agreement “historic.”

Mulvihill said transfers between Umatilla and Morrow county schools have typically been free-flowing, with districts accepting new students from outside their area as long as they have room in their enrollment.

But COVID-19 changed that dynamic and the moratorium was put into place to ward off competition between districts and as a health precaution.

“This is one of the things we can do to protect us as a region,” he said.

In an email, Hermiston School District Superintendent Tricia Mooney wrote that her district actually saw a net loss from transfers, with more than 100 students transferring out than in the district.

Mooney further explained why the Hermiston School District joined the effort.

“We all need to work together to get our students back in school,” she wrote. “We need to be able to establish stable cohorts and provide consistency in instruction as we move through the school year. With the various sizes of districts in our counties, each may offer different opportunities for learning.”

While Hermiston is the region’s largest school district and also the hardest hit by COVID-19, Helix is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The district revolves around a town of 184, and sits in a ZIP code with a population so small that the Oregon Health Authority doesn’t publish its COVID-19 cases, instead aggregating it into a count with other small ZIP codes.

Helix Superintendent Darrick Cope declined to name how many students transfer from outside the area, but said a significant number come from the Pendleton area.

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