Portland Public Schools officials announced Friday afternoon they’re extending distance learning for three middle schools: George, Kellogg and Tubman, after they spent all this week learning online for COVID-19 related reasons. At the same time, the district says, it’s ready to open in-person instruction at six schools Monday — including four high schools.

Students at the three middle schools where distance learning is being extended won’t see the inside of a classroom until Feb. 1. They’ll have online classes next week and then previously scheduled days off on Jan. 28 and Jan. 31.

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In a written statement, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said the state’s largest district is dealing with similar problems related to the pandemic as other parts of the Portland community, saying “the latest surge in COVID-19 cases has also impacted every facet of PPS operations.”

“Any necessary adjustments will continue to be guided by our goals of optimizing health & safety in our school communities and preserving a continuity of learning for our students,” Guerrero wrote. “We will prioritize in-person learning whenever viable.”

The decision to continue distance learning at the middle schools comes just a day and a half after teachers and parents from at least one school were given reason to hope in-person learning was returning on time.

Portland Public Schools intends to open Harriet Tubman Middle School in fall 2018.

Portland Public Schools officials announced Friday afternoon they’re extending distance learning for Tubman Middle School and two others, George and Kellogg, after they spent all this week learning online for COVID-19 related reasons.

Rob Manning / OPB

“We’re hopeful that the week of temporary distance learning provided scholars and staff the necessary isolation time to minimize another schoolwide outbreak,” said Tubman principal Kevin Bacon in an email to families Wednesday night.

Students at Cleveland and McDaniel high schools returned Tuesday. Jefferson High School had initially been scheduled to return to in-person instruction earlier this week, but it was extended through Friday. Now, Jefferson is one of six schools resuming in-person this coming Monday, in addition to Faubion K-8, Ockley Green Middle School, and Alliance, Franklin and Roosevelt high schools, according to a Friday update to the district’s school tracker.

Decisions to close or open based on multiple factors

PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia said, like closing a school, a lot of different decisions go into whether a school can return to in-person learning.

“We look at staff attendance prior to the closure and during distance learning,” Garcia said. “...We continue to monitor the COVID cases, both in students and staff, and we also look at student absence rates prior to closure and during distance learning.”

Garcia said district personnel, health officials, including regional school supervisors help make decisions around both closing and reopening a school.

“It’s not just me and you know, a few suits making decisions,” Garcia said. “We really invite our principals and our folks that are on the ground to give us the real information.”

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Sometimes, those school leaders have said the spread of COVID-19 is leading students and staff to get sick. Other times, worries about the spreading virus are keeping people home.

While some families are expressing frustration with the return to distance learning, Garcia said he’s heard school leaders say distance learning is going well and should continue. One advantage to distance learning is that if a teacher is at home for quarantine reasons, the students can still receive instruction from that teacher — rather than having a substitute in the classroom.

“Being in communication with the school principal, [they’re] saying, ‘we are seeing an exponential increase of students engaging, engaging with their classroom teacher instead of a sub,’” Garcia said.

There have been continued questions and concerns about the safety in schools and whether COVID-19 protocols are being followed from some families and staff members, including school nurses. Contact tracing efforts and COVID-19 reporting continue to lag, with the district removing an on-site exposure tracker from its COVID-19 dashboard “given the significant backlog of data entry for onsite exposures.”

PPS aims to keep K-5s open ‘to the greatest extent’

Garcia said he’s heard concerns around proper masking and issues around physical distancing. He said he sees the “visible and invisible things” keeping students safe, including vaccination rates for staff and use of HEPA filters.

“To suggest that things are unsafe is really challenging … schools are just a reflection of our community, and we’re seeing spread in our community, therefore we’re seeing the impacts of it in our schools,” he said.

Despite the unknown impact of COVID-19 cases on Portland schools, officials have called school closures a “last resort” for all schools, but for elementary schools that’s especially true, Garcia said.

“One of the things that we wanted to make sure is that, to the extent possible, that we kept K-5s whole, that we kept K-5s in school,” Garcia said. “That we kept, to the greatest extent, our middle grades, and then ultimately our high schools.”

Not every school serving younger students has been spared from closures, though. Faubion K-8 in North Portland has been closed since Jan. 11, though it’s scheduled to reopen Monday.

Kellogg — one of the middle schools seeing an extended building closure — required significant support from the PPS central office to stay open earlier this month. Garcia said “at the peak,” between 25 and 30 central office staff were heading to the school to help fill staffing shortages. But when it “didn’t make sense” to continue doing that at Kellogg, Garcia said, those staff members were deployed to fill absences at other schools.

Student absences also play a role in closing schools. Over the last week, absence rates have been high, but seem to be decreasing this week.

Garcia noted district-wide student absence rates have ranged recently from 22% to 25%. On Tuesday, the first day back after a holiday, he said absences were at 18%.

Staff absences seem to be similar, with requests for substitute teachers reaching 414 last week, on Friday, and down to 278 this past Wednesday, January 19.

In a statement released Friday afternoon, the district affirmed that both absentee rates and requests for substitute teachers are going down.

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