As Oregon school districts weigh the possibility of shutting down school buildings and move again to distance learning, leaders have been looking closely at staffing levels and student attendance trends, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads. As has been the case for nearly two years since the pandemic arrived in Oregon, the dilemma remains how to balance student and community health, with the superior effectiveness of in-person instruction as a teaching strategy.

A number of Oregon’s largest school districts — including Salem-Keizer, North Clackamas and Gresham-Barlow — closed Friday due to staffing shortages related to the recent rapid spread of COVID-19 in the state. But they were planning to reopen in-person this week.

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By mid-afternoon Monday — the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday — those districts still appeared to be planning to be all in-person Tuesday.

Gresham-Barlow communications director Athena Vadnais told OPB in a brief email that the nearly 12,000 students in that district should plan to show up to school Tuesday.

“As of now GBSD is in session tomorrow as scheduled,” Vadnais wrote. OPB received a similar message from a North Clackamas district official late Monday afternoon.

The decisions around keeping schools open or closing them temporarily, in some cases as a transition to distance learning, have been largely tied to staffing levels, as well as student absences and the number of available substitutes.

Portland Public Schools has taken a building-by-building, day-by-day approach, with five schools closing on Friday and headed into distance learning this week: Alliance and Franklin high schools, and George, Kellogg and Harriet Tubman middle schools. Several PPS schools are continuing in distance learning after starting that approach early last week, while three high schools — Cleveland, Jefferson and McDaniel — should be back in-person this week.

Portland school nurses allege inadequate staffing, poor data, undermined decisions

In its recent announcement about the temporary move to distance learning for Tubman and Franklin, the district said the move was “due to COVID-19 impact on staffing and student absences.”

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An email sent by the district’s head of human resources last week referred to a “high volume of last-minute educator absences” playing a part in the need to “rapidly transition to temporary distance learning.”

But in a letter circulated over the MLK Day holiday weekend, Portland-area school nurses are objecting to the messaging behind these school closure decisions.

The letter from the nurses argues that the teacher absences are related to the underlying challenge of the ongoing pandemic, and accuses the district of “blaming teachers for taking sick time.”

“[S]chools are short staffed because so many educators are sick or quarantined, or have families of their own to care for who are sick,” the letter reads.

The Oregon Health Authority relaxed some rules related to quarantine and contract tracing in schools in light of research showing “layered mitigation efforts in K-12 schools have worked well to minimize transmission.” But in their letter, the nurses object to characterizing schools as having sufficient protections in place to keep students and staff safe and healthy in the middle of a pandemic.

Nurses argue that school environments are being described as safe, but that’s not the same as making them safe.

“We are experiencing the worst outbreak of disease since the onset of the pandemic,” reads the letter signed by 36 registered nurses. “Messaging that schools are safe — without taking the steps to make them safe — does not keep children safe.”

The nurses’ letter contends that the various mitigation layers that the state is calling for — from ventilation to vaccination, proper masking to social distancing — are not being followed consistently in the school buildings of Oregon’s largest district.

“The reality is that the classrooms and hallways are crowded, windows are closed, HEPA filters are too few, masking is not of medical grade, children are testing positive at a rate that is too fast to track, the tests provided are expired, and staffing in every department is stretched too thin,” the letter said.

In addition, the letter contends there are too few school nurses to do the job that’s required, which in turn, leads to inadequate tracking of positive COVID-19 cases. Ultimately, the nurses argue, that leads to inaccurate data for PPS to make decisions on how to run schools.

A message to Portland Public Schools on Monday was not returned by late afternoon.

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