Think Out Loud

Omicron surge forces return to remote learning

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Jan. 11, 2022 6:08 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 11

Tigard-Tualatin School District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith preparing to administer a rapid COVID-19 test to a student at Durham Elementary School which shifted to online instruction this week amid the omicron surge.

Tigard-Tualatin School District Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith preparing to administer a rapid COVID-19 test to a student at Durham Elementary School which shifted to online instruction this week amid the omicron surge.

Tigard-Tualatin School District

The omicron variant surging throughout Oregon is now taking a toll on schools, with administrators shifting to remote learning as staff as students and staff fall ill or quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus. On Tuesday, citing staffing shortages, Forest Grove High School said it will shift to online instruction for 10 days, joining four campuses in the Portland Public Schools district.

All comprehensive middle and high schools in the Tigard-Tualatin School District will shift to online instruction starting Thursday. Durham Elementary School in Tigard made the shift on Monday following several hundred new COVID-19 cases among students and staff. Sue Rieke-Smith, the superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District, joins us to discuss the impact the omicron variant is having on instruction and staffing levels in the district.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  Many parents in Oregon and across the country are bracing themselves these days for what seems like an inevitable announcement, an email or a text message, from their school district saying that in-person classes have once again been cancelled. Over the weekend three Portland high schools and one middle school went back to distance learning. In central Oregon, the Warm Springs K-8 Academy is closed. So is Ashland High School in southern Oregon.  In Vancouver, all middle and high schools are doing remote learning for at least the next three weeks.

We want to hear how one administrator is making decisions these days. So we’ve called up Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith, the Superintendent of the Tigard/Tualatin School District. On Sunday, the district announced that Durham Elementary School would be going back to online learning.  And just within the last hour it announced all middle and high schools in the district are following suit. They are going to distance learning starting on Thursday. Can you give us a sense for the conversations you had this morning?

Sue Rieki-Smith:  Absolutely. And this is, I want to say, a model of how the last week and a half has gone for us. Actually, prior to even coming back from the winter break. Number one, we take a look first and foremost at the number of staff absences and requests for subs that are in our sub request system, ESS.  Then we have a five-tiered system we’ve developed across the district in terms of deploying additional staff that are not necessarily already assigned to buildings. So we’ve used ourCARES and ESSR dollars from the Feds to help provide additional roving subs. Then we deploy our teachers on special assignments and have assigned them to buildings to cover. Next comes the central administration who are licensed, as we all carry licences to teach as well as to be administrators.

Then towards the end of that chain we are having to make the decision.  If we can’t run with that, then what’s still available to us? Do we have enough staff who are well that we can flip to online learning for a short period of time while staff and/or potentially students roll through their isolation/quarantine period? Or is it to the point where that isn’t even possible and we have to close schools? This happens on a day-by-day basis. So each day we sit as a team. I get a report first thing around 4:30-5:00 in the morning, we debrief in the morning around 8:00 AM,  a midday debrief, an afternoon debrief and then [in the] evening as we start to take a look at the next day relative to subs.

So literally, our goal is to maintain in-person instruction. If we can run a particular school, we want to do that. We learned some incredible lessons last year relative to placing everyone under the same guidance, relative to online learning for an entire district. So we’re trying to be strategic. If we can flip a classroom, we’re going to flip the classroom. If we need to flip the school, as we did with Durham, we’ll flip the school to online. Then if all of those measures don’t work, then the end of that line is we need to close until we can get staff and students to a place where they are healthy and well.

Miller:  How do you think about the timing of these announcements?  So I was thinking about Durham Elementary. It went out, if I’m not mistaken on Sunday night, meaning 12 hours or so before it was going to start. Today’s came in the middle of the school day. I don’t think it meant that high schools closed immediately. But today is going be the last day for a while that they’re open for in-person instruction. But what do you think about when you’re giving parents and families, the whole community, this information?

Rieke-Smith: Yes. Thank you. We always try to give people as long a runway as possible based on conditions. The situation relative to Durham didn’t did not allow us as long a runway for a variety of reasons. However, on Friday, as part of our regular weekly newsletter to our community, we gave our community a heads up that these are very fluid situations, much like inclement weather, and so to be prepared with some alternatives related to childcare or other support needs that you might have. And be prepared that this may come at the ninth hour. Again, our commitment is to keeping kids in place. And as we’re figuring out the puzzle, it’s sort of like a flight schedule out of PDX. We know that that flight isn’t available, but two others might be. And so it’s like playing Jenga or putting a very complex puzzle together, within a 24-hour period, school by school.

And so we try to make sure that we have exhausted all alternatives at that point before we make the final call because no one does not want to be in front of their kids if they can help it. [For] high schools and middle schools, we’re following that pattern as well. And it was very clear, in this case, what was driving it was not just staff, but it was also the ever increasing numbers of students who are positive. So just based on the size of the populations of our middle schools and high schools combined with staff who are rolling in and out of illness, the decision today was it’s time to press pause for a period of time so that we can get everybody healthy and well and then come back in-person.

Miller:  I want to come back to questions about case counts in a second. But just to linger on staffing because as you’re saying, that is the key piece here. Can you get access to substitute teachers right now? That’s just one of the Jenga pieces that you mentioned. But are they even available?

Rieke-Smith:  Thank you. Yeah. Within our system, we know that there are about 300 subs that have not picked up any work for any of the surrounding districts in the trimet area. That’s why many districts have done what we’ve done and actually have deeper pools relative to hiring temporary staff as subs. But no, we’re all competing for a very limited resource, and frankly, the majority, many times, of our substitutes are those who are either recently retired or retired for some period of time. Frankly they’re of an age where they’re looking at the conditions relative to COVID and have concerns for their own health. So it’s totally understandable. And speaking to my colleagues across the state there have been offers, particularly in our smaller communities and more rural communities, offers of stipends and/or additional hourly pay and it is still not enough to attract the level of staffing that is required to run a full program for the day.

Miller:  Are teachers not coming in these days primarily because they have tested positive or because they have been exposed or because they are afraid of getting exposed?

Rieke-Smith:  I think it’s probably all of the above. I don’t have any way of really defining that unless, of course, a staff member says ‘I have symptoms and have tested positive’. But that is a personal choice and our staff needs to indicate to us when they will be able to be on duty and when they are not. I will say that we have enjoyed, in TTSD, a very strong relationship with our association. And teachers are very upfront saying, ‘you know if I can teach, I want to be there’. We also have a majority of our staff who are allowing their prep to be bought out so that they are teaching full bore all day long to cover spaces where their colleagues are not able to be there because [of] illness. And it’s putting a stressor on the entire system to the point that even if you are not ill, eventually for a mental health break,  you may be applying to say ‘I just need a day off to try to catch my breath, given the conditions in which I’m trying to support my colleagues and and make sure that we’re in front of kids’.

Miller:  Can you explain what it means for a teacher’s prep to be bought out?

Rieke-Smith:  We have contractual language. And much like other districts, that says that we can ask you to teach a period that you would normally have as a protected period for planning time, which teachers need to prepare either for the day’s lesson or for the upcoming lessons. So there is a contractual language relative to a certain rate of pay that pays them for that time, should they be willing to volunteer and cover someone else’s classroom if we don’t have a sub. And again, like I said, teachers across our K-12 system have been doing some tremendously heavy lifting over the last week and a half - even before we went out on winter break.

Miller:  It sounds like that’s another way of saying that as a district, you’re paying a lot of overtime, right? Whether it’s for substitutes or paying teachers to teach more to have more instructional hours in the course of a week. Do you have enough money to keep this going?

Rieke-Smith:  We always have a contingency fund relative to what we would call extended contract, what you would call overtime for our licensed staff. And again, this is where we also access our CARES and ESSR dollars, ESSR two and ESSR three, those federal dollars. We have had, repeatedly, parents [say], ‘why don’t you use your federal dollars?’ We are. We are being very strategic about where we use those because we also want to provide additional opportunities for in-person learning during the summers and potentially extending our calendar going into next year, depending on what the conditions are. Because we know that we also have unfinished learning that we need to attend to. So it’s this constant balancing act between what we already have in our general fund budget, of which there is a contingency fund for this, as well as leveraging our federal dollars.

Miller:  This is an all hands on deck staffing situation. How much are administrators, even people like you, filling in in classrooms right now?

Rieke-Smith:  We have had our central office licensed staff either filling classes or supervising where it is necessary. I myself was out on Friday supporting tests to stay. My previous career, prior to coming to education is as a trauma nurse and public health nurse. Having had received training early in the fall relative to administering what you can administer at home now, the BinaxNOW tests and so supported staff at several of our schools on friday so that they could roll out to do something else. Again, based on my previous career, I know that many times if you can put someone in to provide low level support, that leaves their expertise to be applied somewhere else within the system, either within the school or at another school.



Miller:  And so in terms of the particular jobs that you are helping to fill in for, for states, for school nurses, but you are the superintendent. I mean, it seems pretty amazing that you are at the point where the best use of some of your day when there are so many fires to put out, I imagine is to administer, you know, rapid COVID tests to kids well.

Rieke-Smith:  And again, that is to the point of our commitment to keeping kids in place. I think, in addition, that does not mean that I’m not attending to other district business. As we are waiting for tests to develop, you’ve got your eye to your texts and your eye to your email and your attending to those needs as well. And then the day extends long into the evening while you’re answering parent or community emails or doing other work and as well as over the weekend

Miller:  And then 4:30AM you get the email saying ‘this is what staffing looks like’...

Rieke-Smith:  Right, so you get up and you do it all over again Dave. That’s precisely right.

Miller:  You mentioned almost in passing that parents have been saying to you, ‘why don’t you spend federal dollars on this?’ and you said ‘we are, this is what we’re spending it on’. I’m curious more broadly what you’ve been hearing from parents say over the weekend or Sunday night and yesterday morning at Durham Elementary School.  But now, from many many more parents whose kids are going to be back home, what are you hearing?

Rieke-Smith:  I think first and foremost, the primary concern is whether we are headed back into where we were in the spring of 2020, which is you say it [might be] a short period of time, but this may go on forever. That’s why we are very intentional about taking a look at the isolation and the quarantine numbers. The revised guidance from the CDC relative to five day quarantine helps a tremendous amount. So it gives us an opportunity to be far more specific from here from this date to this date. We can roll everybody through who possibly has been exposed and/or needs to isolate and then come back. So that’s one of the things our learnings from last year has been - be very specific and be time bound. The second piece is that most of the email traffic I have received in the last several days has been from parents who are of the belief of anti-vaxxers and/or anti maskers. So I am working with them and helping them to understand why this is important. I always appreciate my role as an educator, and certainly again back to when I was in health care, helping to try to work through, listen carefully to what parents concerns are, understand what the root cause of their anxiety is and then working to provide them with information so that they can make good choices - best for them and for their students and family.

Miller:  And that looks like right now, if somebody who you identify as being, as you say, anti vax or anti mask, writes what I’m imagining is an angry email to you saying ‘this is ridiculous. Keep my kid in school’. What do you write back, if you write back?

Rieke-Smith:  Well, what I write back is first and foremost, I always thank them for the email because it helps me to see where they are and it helps me to understand how much of my constituency may be in that particular vein or vote. The next thing that I do is to always offer an opportunity to have conversation with me. So yes, that takes time. But I think it is important in terms of continuing to maintain and further develop relationships. And then nine times out of ten, it’s just an opportunity for them to vent, to share their own anxieties. Schools are a human service. We are a first responder in many ways. So we are a conduit for people to share their anxieties, their anger, their frustration with larger community impact. So the good news is I have that training, as do many of our administrators. All of our administrators just sit and listen many times and say ‘we understand, we hear you and we wish we could make it different’. But this is where we are.

Miller:  There are many other parents who are not at all anti vaccine, who’ve gotten themselves vaccinated and boosted and their kids vaccinated as well and have been wearing masks this whole time, but who are also frustrated or fed up or scared or just at their wits end or tired or worried about taking care of their kids again or their their kid’s educations, kids, many of whom um struggled with online school, what are you telling them now?

Rieke-Smith:  It’s the same approach dave in the sense of listening - listening to what you tell me, what your anxiety is. Tell me what your fear is or what you’re angry about, and then walking side by side with them through that.  I will tell you that the majority of the Durham community understood.  They’re not happy about it, nor are we, but they were basically, ‘thank you for being thoughtful, thank you for being strategic’. And with our announcement today, from the staff email coming back to me, it’s much along the same vein - ‘thank you for not shutting us all down, thank you for being strategic and thinking case by case based on data’. Again, it’s just a lot of just listening and recognizing the pain that people are going through, providing them services that we do have in terms of mental health or social services or food services or whatever other types of wraparound supports that they will need, and then just letting them know that we’re in this together.

Miller:  You mentioned mental health. What are you doing right now to support the mental health needs of students in particular?

Rieke-Smith:  We do have two student-based health clinics where students can connect. We are, however, finding that students are challenged, trying to make those connections. We heard it last night at our board meeting from students. So our Student Services Director Carol Kinch has taken that information and is reviewing with our high schools and our middle schools how we can be even clearer about how students can connect with school counsellors with additional mental health supports that we have and have expanded through our Student Success Act dollars just prior to the pandemic. Then wherever there are still gaps, we’ll be trying to attend to those gaps and see if we can fill the need.  The challenge community wide is that there is greater need than there are actual practitioners who can address it.

Miller:  One Tigard High School student wrote on Instagram recently, ‘there’s been a 675% increase in cases in only the last 14 days and the projected peak is January 26. Our finals date is currently that very same week’. Students at that high school, I understand, have been asking if finals can be cancelled. Is that under consideration?

Rieke-Smith:  Yes, it is and I appreciate you bringing that forward. Actually it is the right of the teacher to determine how they wish to assess end-of-semester final grades. Both Principals Bailey at Tigard High School and Dellerba at Tualatin High School have sent out a staff communication this morning urging teachers to rethink that particular format and look into other ways to refine their final grades for end-of-semester, so that we can give students a little bit of breathing room in the current conditions.

Miller:  You noted in your letter to the district community on Friday that you were no longer updating the COVID dashboard for the district. It reminded me a little bit of Oregon health authorities saying last week on our show that they can’t really do contact tracing that health authorities can’t right now because they’re just too swamped in this Omicron surge. It makes me wonder if you can have a clear enough sense for cases or exposure to confidently say that[online] learning is only going to go through the end of next week.

Rieke-Smith:  In my letter on Friday, it was a matter of, at that point in time, too many cases coming in and we had limited staff here. As well, our communications team that sets up that dashboard were also out. They’re now back on track. So part of this pause is also to get a final handle on what we know right now, relative to positive cases. I think what our community might be interested to know is that schools are responsible for doing tracing and making mandatory reports to our local health authorities, which in our case is Washington and Clackamas Counties.

And just as a point of information, every trace, every student that we have to trace is a minimum of a two hour process. So in Durham’s case, there were close to 130 students who potentially had been exposed or maybe positive that they were working through. So it’s just a matter of pressing pause long enough for administration and nursing staff to catch up, get a sense of that  and then begin to make some decisions relative to coming back in. But we are feeling fairly confident at this point in time. And I always put that caveat out there Dave - at this point in time -  that we will roll through most of the positive cases and be ready to come back online on the 24th for those middle and secondary programs.

Miller:  Finally, after the statewide school closures at the start of the pandemic, the Department of Education really backed off from those kinds of across-the-board mandates and they gave local districts like yours a lot more control. It means that you can decide your fate to a much greater extent at Tigard/Tualatin schools. But it also means you’re on the hook. You can’t say, ‘hey Kate Brown did this not me’. How do you feel about this responsibility?

Rieke-Smith:  I think it is, it is an awesome responsibility because first and foremost I’m going to go back to what I’ve said before. Our primary mission in public education is to be in front of our students and help them to learn and grow and be productive citizens. That’s our primary mission. So whatever I can do working within the context of my community to make that happen, that’s my responsibility. And I knew that as a teacher, I knew that as a building administrator and I certainly embrace that as a superintendent.

That means I am responsible for making the hard calls, but I don’t do it in absentia. I do it in collaboration with our associations, in collaboration with my administrators, in collaboration with feedback from staff. We in Tigard/Tualatin have a longstanding history of also collaborating with our mayors. We serve four municipalities with our city councillors with our city services so that it is in truth, it is a community-wide conversation.  So I know that when I’m making those decisions as hard as they can be for others to hear that and experience that I have, I have received input from across the continuum-students, parents,staff, community.

Just briefly, do you feel like you have the support of your board. This is an issue. We’ve talked about so much in the last year and a half with superintendents being fired because there are tensions between the elected leaders of the superintendent and the superintendent themselves. I cannot speak more highly of my board. And I don’t say that to, to certainly gild the lily. I say that because it’s true.

Rieke-Smith:  My chair, my board Chair, Ben Bowman, my Vice Chair, Dr. Marvin Lynn and my directors, Tristan Irvin, David Jaimes and Jill Zurschmeide are literally front and center and shoulder to shoulder with me on these decisions. I take great care to make sure they have all the information prior to making any decision.  Today, before we announce the middle school and high school decision, it goes in front of them, I basically ask them for any input or concerns that they have. Then once we have strong support and we’re good to go, then we make the decision.

Miller:  Sue Rieke-Smith, thanks very much for your time today. I’ll let you get to everything else you need to do today.

Rieke-Smith:  Thank you, David. It’s been a pleasure and thank you so much for the opportunity. You have an awesome rest of the day.

Miller:  You too.  You have an awesome rest of your day. I haven’t heard that for awhile. May it happen for all of us.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.