School quarantines provide lessons for districts from Portland to the South Coast

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Sept. 24, 2021 1:49 a.m.

With limited capacity to trace exposure, schools are shutting down classrooms or whole schools to minimize spread of the virus.

Last Wednesday, administrators in the Reynolds School District in east Multnomah County announced that the almost 2,700 students at Reynolds High School would be out of school for two days before a week of “short-term comprehensive distance learning”.

The closure was in response to a large number of students and staff having to quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19. The second-largest high school in the state only reported four positive cases of the virus, but district officials said quarantining 875 students and staff was necessary because the school hadn’t been doing contact tracing.


“It was going to be too difficult for teachers to conduct in-person instruction and remote instruction with the amount of students who needed to be quarantined,” said district official Steven Padilla in an email to OPB.

“Therefore, RHS made the decision to offer distance learning for a week in order to implement operational procedures to limit disruption due to quarantine protocols in the future.”

Reynolds High School in Troutdale closed for two days in September 2021, due to a handful of positive COVID-19 cases, which caused hundreds of students and staff to quarantine.

Reynolds High School in Troutdale closed for two days in September 2021, due to a handful of positive COVID-19 cases, which caused hundreds of students and staff to quarantine.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

When school first started, seating charts weren’t in place, or followed. That made it impossible to do contact tracing.

“Without the ability to safely confirm contact tracing by seating charts and the urgency with which the school needed to notify of possible exposure, decisions were made to quarantine entire classrooms to maintain safety,” Padilla wrote.

Some in the Reynolds school community point to additional factors complicating the high school’s COVID-19 response, including overcrowding and a lack of advance planning.

“We received no protocols nor training as a staff on what to do from the district,” said Reynolds High School teacher Evan Selby. There was no plan to safely execute lunch, Selby said, by adding outdoor options or extra space.

Selby said large class sizes made it impossible to maintain three feet of physical distance. His largest class has 47 students.

Selby said he expressed concerns about school COVID-19 safety measures before the school year. He hoped for collaboration with district officials in planning but he said that didn’t happen, a years-long problem that he said has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Before, it affected the learning environment and student support, but now it affects student and community health and carries significant repercussions,” Selby said.

Quarantine responses vary across the state

It’s up to individual schools and districts to decide its quarantine procedures. The Oregon Department of Education has shared some tools with school districts to help them make decisions, like an “Oregon Data for Decisions” dashboard and a guide on how to include measures like community transmission and attendance data in decisions around school.

“Our priority is to implement the protocols needed to reliably and safely hold school in-person, every school day, for all students, all year long,” said ODE director Colt Gill in a September 8 message to school leaders.

“At the same time, it is important to be as prepared as possible for future disruptions to in-person learning, whether from disease, wildfires, ice storms or other circumstances which may affect a classroom, a portion of a school, an entire school building, or a district.”

Portland Public Schools, for example, works with the Multnomah Education Service District to quarantine small groups of students based on contact tracing for “close contacts” of positive COVID-19 cases, whether exposed at school or outside of school.

PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia said contact tracing helps minimize disruptions for students who haven’t been in “close contact” with a positive case. Some teachers say in reality, contact tracing can be difficult because there isn’t enough capacity at the school level.

At Whitman Elementary in Southeast Portland, three whole classrooms are under quarantine. Whitman teacher Joanne Shepard said about 30% of the school is out.

“Most schools have just a few kids [out] here and there…,” Shepard said. “At my school, they’ve decided that this entire classroom has been exposed.”

What Shepard described at her school is also happening in the Beaverton School District, where whole classes have been quarantined due to one positive COVID-19 case. BSD officials say that can happen if school nurses and county health officials cannot guarantee that individuals near the infected person for more than 15 minutes followed distancing guidelines and wore masks. The district’s dashboard reported 16 classes were quarantined September 21, the date with most complete data available, according to the district.

Shepard said Whitman has been without a full-time nurse or health assistant since the start of school, and office administrators have had to do multiple jobs. She said it wasn’t until teachers threatened to call in sick that PPS administrators said they would get a student health assistant and district personnel to help cover for sick teachers.

“It still doesn’t sit well with me that this was preventable,” Shepard said. “We knew that we didn’t have the staff. We knew that our community was at high risk based on the neighborhood.”

Garcia said the school will get a temporary student health assistant September 24 until a permanent one can start next week, with a school nurse on campus every Friday.

Students approach a door while an adult stands outside wearing a mask and holding a radio and a clipboard.

Kellogg Middle School principal Richard Smith greets students on the first day of school September 1, 2021. Kellogg was one of a few Portland Public Schools to report "on-site" transmission of COVID-19 toward the beginning of the school year.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

“We understand that any quarantining can create disruptions for students, families and our schools,” Garcia said “We also know that our hard-working teachers and staff are doing their best to ensure instruction still occurs while at home, and that students are welcomed back into their classroom once the quarantine is over.”

Garcia said teachers are given three options to serve students at home: providing or adapting resources from a PPS webpage, creating virtual access for students to participate simultaneously with students in the physical classroom, and providing class specific materials through online platforms Seesaw and Canvas. Whitman Elementary teacher Shepard hopes the families and young students new to her school are able to access those online resources.

For students at Whitman and the Beaverton schools, the state’s plan for full-time, in-person learning is not a consistent reality.

“That’s not happening for some neighborhoods,” she said.

Big shutdown in small district on South Coast

Far from Beaverton, Portland, and Reynolds, another school shut down recently for a couple of days. And it wasn’t just due to COVID-19 quarantines.

But it started that way, said Coquille Junior Senior High principal Jeff Philley. Like in Reynolds, it started with four cases. Early last week, four students and staff affiliated with the football team tested positive for COVID-19. Then Friday, COVID-19 hit the girls soccer and volleyball teams.

“All of a sudden, really quickly, we had about 70, 75 students that were quarantined and going to be missing a few weeks of school,” Philley said. “But on top of that, when we looked at our absenteeism rate for the day on Friday, we had an additional 70 to 80 students who were absent.”

Philley heard from parents who didn’t want to send their kids to school out of fear of an “escalating outbreak.” One third of the school’s students were out of school.

So later that day, they announced three weeks of distance learning. Officials hoped that was enough time to get through the quarantines and address concerns from families about outbreaks.

The three-week pause also took effect for all athletics at the junior high and high school levels. Students are set to return to in-person school October 11.

“My main goal is just to get through this distance learning time as quickly as we can and get students back in the building,” Philley said.

Over the next few weeks, Philley said the district is working with state agencies to have plans in place to avoid large-scale closures.

“This hit us pretty quickly,” Philley said.

Asked whether anything will change for sports teams after the three-week interruption, Philley said those conversations are ongoing as school officials try to balance student needs for extracurricular activities.

One thing Philley knows for sure is that he doesn’t want his students to go through another large-scale shutdown this year.

Gill, Oregon’s top education official, agrees with Philley that schools and local public health departments should work to reduce the number of quarantined students.

“There are times when a school and local public health authority need to quarantine larger groups due to exposure, but the ideal is to quarantine as few students as possible and maintain safe and stable access to in-person learning,” Gill said in a message to OPB.

Distance learning for the Coquille students is set to start this week. Many miles away, at Reynolds High School, the week of distance learning is wrapping up.

A few days in, Selby said his students were resilient and looking forward to going back to school in-person.

“Overall they’ve handled it well for the situation we’ve had to deal with,” he said.

He and staff have collaborated with building administrators to try and make the school safer for when students return Monday. In his class of 47, he’s working with administrators to open a classroom that will have enough space for everyone.

He said the groups have been working on how to better improve contact tracing.

The district is holding vaccination clinics for the community, and requesting parents and guardians voluntarily provide student vaccination status. Students who are fully vaccinated may not have to quarantine if they’re exposed to an infected person.

At the same time, district officials said they can’t rule out another school-wide shutdown in the future.

“While we continue navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still possible that the whole school may have to switch back to short-term distance learning,” Padilla wrote to OPB. “But we hope that the protocols we put in place...we can avoid having to do that.”