Education

Portland Public Schools calls closures a ‘last resort’ — but be prepared

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Jan. 8, 2022 2:09 a.m. Updated: Jan. 8, 2022 10:21 p.m.

Thousands of Portland high school students will start school next week from home, as Cleveland, McDaniel and Roosevelt high schools shift to distance learning for a week due to “COVID-related absences.”

It could be a sign of things to come for more Portland families and staff as the district deals with staffing shortages and absences brought on by the omicron variant of COVID-19, which is spreading rapidly in Oregon and across the country.

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Cleveland High School principal, Leo Lawyer, estimates 5% to 10% of students use vaping products on a regular basis. At least one student says it's more like 20%.

Students at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland found out Thursday night they would not be coming to school the next day as roughly 1 in 5 students and staff were unable to attend as the omicron variant of the coronavirus rapidly spread. Cleveland and McDaniel High School will return to distance learning next week. It's unknown if other schools will join them, or for how long.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

During a media briefing Friday, Portland Public Schools superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero called closing schools a “last resort.”

“Our goal is to keep our school buildings open, and to maintain in-person instruction as much as possible,” Guerrero said.

The message Friday was reflected in an announcement that went out to PPS families earlier in the day, that also included an outline of what temporary distance learning might look like.

In the Friday message to families, PPS officials said the reason for the high school closures at Cleveland and McDaniel was due to an inability to fully staff and operate the high schools with high numbers of COVID-19 cases. On Saturday, it was announced that Roosevelt High School, located in North Portland, will be closed Monday as a transition day and will have remote classes through at least Friday, Jan. 14 for the same reason. COVID isolation and quarantine numbers are published in the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which may be out of date.

But those numbers don’t include staff or others staying home because they have symptoms, or have not been able to get tested, said PPS Human Resources Director Sharon Reese.

“One of the challenges is the lack of testing, so that we can determine whether somebody’s sore throat is the result of COVID, or if it’s the result of a common cold,” Reese said.

State health officials have acknowledged the lack of available COVID-19 tests — a problem that has frustrated Oregonians as they scour the internet for testing locations and often wait in long lines to get tested.

Reese said the PPS school closures aren’t about spread — it’s a matter of logistically not having enough staff, whether they’re quarantining, have COVID-19, or have COVID-19 symptoms.

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“That’s not what is happening here, it’s that we don’t think we can safely staff and open those campuses to in-person instruction,” Reese said.

When asked whether the district would be adopting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shortened quarantine period, which was recently amended to include schools, Guerrero said the district is waiting to hear what state officials say about the CDC’s quarantine period.

When it comes to staffing, PPS, like districts around the state and around the country, are struggling to fill positions daily.

PPS Chief of Research, Assessment and Accountability Renard Adams said that as of Friday, 169 staff members were in isolation, with an additional 60 staff quarantined due to exposure (most of those from off-site exposure).

“Approximately 435 substitute teacher requests have been received, and 263 of those requests were filled,” Adams explained. “172 were not filled, and those classrooms were staffed with other licensed educators.”

That includes central office staff, Adams said.

One potential solution to filling those substitute requests is the state’s emergency substitute license. But officials said that route has not led to the number of subs expected.

As of Friday, the district has 56 active substitute educators on an emergency license, with 174 in “some phase of hiring.”

“What we’ve found is that we haven’t had a high yield for those,” Reese said.

The district also continues to struggle to hire bus drivers, custodial staff and other staff members.

Going forward, the district plans to keep looking school by school at its criteria to determine whether they need to transition to distance learning, hoping to give families “as much notice as humanely possible,” Reese said.

“It looks like we may have other schools where we’ll need to go through our decision-making process,” Guerrero cautioned.

“I don’t think anybody in the broader community is going to be surprised that unless the conditions improve, and we can guarantee consistency of staffing, that there may be additional school communities where we need to transition temporarily to distance learning.”

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