Students gather in front of Kellogg Middle School on September 1, 2021. Kellogg is one of several schools that Portland Public Schools closed to in-person instruction in January 2022, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 challenged school operations.

Students gather in front of Kellogg Middle School on September 1, 2021. Kellogg is one of several schools that Portland Public Schools closed to in-person instruction in January 2022, as the omicron variant of COVID-19 challenged school operations.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

A day after school nurses in the Portland area sent a letter critical of COVID-19 efforts at the state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools responded by defending the steps it’s taking.

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The nurses’ letter pressed the district to make improvements, writing, “Messaging that schools are safe – without taking the steps to make them safe – does not keep children safe.”

The letter listed a number of shortcomings inside school buildings, such as inadequate distancing among students, improper mask-wearing, lack of HEPA filters and insufficient nursing staff to properly track and respond to illness.

The district’s lengthy response, provided to OPB late Tuesday afternoon, lists efforts the district and staff are making to keep schools healthy, but it starts by acknowledging the significant difficulties schools face during a challenging phase of the pandemic.

“The recent surge in cases due to the Omicron variant, compounded by the unrelenting and continued stress from this pandemic, has impacted all of us as individuals and as a collective society,” begins the statement signed by PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia. “Every sector continues to face challenges, and Portland Public Schools (PPS) is no exception.”

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The district points out that 98% of staff is fully vaccinated, that PPS has spent $3.9 million on 5,500 HEPA air filters throughout school buildings and that the district has “close to 100,000 KN95 masks on hand.” The statement also said officials are, “checking in with schools to ensure they know the processes on how to request deliveries of KN95s.”

To the nurses’ concerns about staffing levels, the PPS statement responded it is “the only school district in Multnomah County that has contracted with MESD to employ [school health assistants] in every one of our schools.” However, it notes that MESD is still hiring for some of those positions. Among the more specific of the nurses’ demands in their letter was a call to reach “a ratio of at least one Registered Nurse (RN) to every 750 students in the general population,” which the letter says the district is “still far from meeting.”

The nurses’ letter also made more general demands, including that the district “listen to your nurses” and “stop blaming educators” as school staff work to make buildings safe and healthy.

The response from the district points out that leaders regularly consult with health officials, and are taking advantage of the testing programs available — including testing students who show symptoms and for staff who’ve been exposed, as well as broader weekly screening efforts.

However, the challenges of keeping up with the pandemic’s effect on Portland schools are evident elsewhere on the district’s website. The district’s COVID-19 dashboard includes a disclaimer dated January 2022 that says, “Due to the surge of COVID-19 cases in our community, data presented in this dashboard is delayed more than normal. We appreciate your patience.”

More recently, the district has tightened masking rules in light of omicron’s transmissibility — requiring masks at athletics and arts events. At the same time, the district is following steps advised by state health officials to shorten quarantine periods and to no longer consider close contact between people in masks as an exposure.

The letter from school nurses, and the response from the district, come on the heels of unsuccessful negotiations in December between administrators and the Portland Association of Teachers. Those talks focused on providing teachers more planning time, among other changes, to deal with the relentless challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. But no agreement was reached.

When PPS emailed the district response to OPB, the message noted that the letter was organized by the Oregon Education Association, the state teachers’ union. The district’s statement also took exception to the inclusion of certain names at the bottom of the letter, noting that one-third of the nurses who signed didn’t work in PPS buildings. The district statement also said that among the health officials the district consults on a regular basis is “one of the signatories of this letter.”

The PPS statement ends with a plea to work together to keep schools healthy: “We deeply value our school-based colleagues and strive to develop solutions that unite us in a common goal of educating the young scholars of our city.”

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