As Portland Public Schools prepares to open its doors next month, district staff and school board members heard from public health experts at a work session on Wednesday.
Amid conversations locally and nationally around health and safety protocols, and the delta variant raising COVID-19 case counts, PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero shared how decisions in Oregon’s largest district get made.
“As educators by profession, from the very beginning, we’ve said we would be guided by public health experts — not politics, not the loudest expressed perspectives, not popular opinion,” Guerrero said.
Guidance from experts at Multnomah County and nationally included a layered, “Swiss-cheese” approach to keeping students and staff safe. The district’s plan includes masks, three feet of physical distancing, testing for symptomatic students and staff, and HEPA filters in classrooms and on school buses.
“Our top goals for public health, one of them is keeping kids in school, which means we need to focus on... community spread, hence our advisory around masks, and our efforts around increasing uptake in vaccinations,” Multnomah County Health Director Jessica Guernsey said.
The district also shared a message on Thursday outlining health and safety protocols.
PPS will continue to advocate the access of vaccinations for anyone 12 and older. Health experts emphasized vaccinations as an added layer of protection for students and staff, which can mitigate the severity of the virus, and reduce the likelihood of hospitalization, significant illness and death.
“The vaccine is not a one-stop-shop, it is one one of the ‘slices of cheese’... it’s really important to give it context,” said Joelle Simpson, pediatric emergency medicine physician and Children’s National Hospital medical director for emergency preparedness.
For students and families not comfortable with or unable to return to school in person, the district has a new online program. The initial application deadline for PPS’ Online Learning Academy was July 30. Deputy Superintendent of Instruction and School Communities Shawn Bird said 286 students applied, with 500 spaces available.
Bird said applications are still open, but due to high demand in upper elementary, the district ran a lottery this week for students in grades 2-5. Bird said those families were notified if they were accepted or waitlisted.
“Kindergarten and first grade, and [grades] six through twelve, everybody that applied will be accepted so far because there’s plenty of room,” Bird said.
As the start of the school year gets closer, board members including Gary Hollands, Julia Brim-Edwards and chair Michelle DePass lobbied for sharing more detailed information about operations with PPS families and communities. Brim-Edwards said she’d never received more messages during a board meeting than the one on Wednesday.
“It’s not ‘cause they’re doubting the experts, but I think it gives them data points to better understand something I don’t think any of us have lived through before,” Brim-Edwards said.
Agreeing with Brim-Edwards, DePass said questions should be compiled into a document and shared with parents.
“More information is going to be better right now, as people are deciding what to do and need that trusted source in the community,” DePass said.