Last April, we were just beginning to understand the impact that COVID-19 would have on our schools and on the world. After a year of distance learning, educators from every school are welcoming students back in-person this month.
PAT members are sharing so many different emotions and experiences connected to this transition: the joy of seeing your students face to face; exhaustion from planning and carrying out two modes of teaching students; frustration at having so many loose ends left to schools and teachers to figure out on their own; determination to get it right for our students.
As we enter a new phase of this unprecedented school year, the safety and well-being of our students, their families, and our community remains at the heart of all we do.
To add to the anxiety of the last few weeks, COVID case counts in Multnomah County have increased significantly since the Governor ordered schools to open in-person. A month ago, Multnomah County recorded 62 cases per hundred thousand over a two-week period. For the most recent 2-week period, we are at 140 cases per hundred thousand.
Thanks to your solidarity and engagement, as well as the relentless commitment of our Bargaining Team, PAT achieved some of the strongest safety language for reopening schools in the country.
Using Our Safety Standards to Stop the Spread
We know that COVID is still spreading in the community, and that it is inevitable that schools will have positive COVID cases. The purpose of our safety language is to do everything we can to make sure that COVID does not spread through our schools.
That is why our agreements on HEPA air purifiers, 6 feet of social distancing, and safety committees are so important. It is crucial that we work at every level to enforce our safety language, and make sure that safety protocols are followed. (You can find our Memorandum of Agreement, Safety Checklists, and PPS and ODE protocols here.)
Last week there were indeed positive COVID cases in several of our schools. This is no surprise: until we reach herd-immunity, we know that unvaccinated people will continue to transmit COVID, and cases will inevitably show up in our schools. Our safety language and protocols are there to prevent the virus from spreading.
In the impacted buildings, PAT members were able to verify that ODE protocols were followed correctly: all students in close contact were notified and quarantined, including those who rode the bus. As we continue to reopen, and as positive cases inevitably arise in our school communities, it is crucial that we stay vigilant.
What Happens When COVID Cases Show Up at School?
Despite rising case numbers in our country and the inevitable disruptions, the Governor’s order requires all middle- and high schools to begin hybrid in-person learning next Monday. PPS is also still bound to follow the RSSL Guidance. According to that guidance, school districts cannot switch from hybrid to remote-only learning unless case counts reach 350 per 100 thousand in the county over a 2-week period (as of Monday, Multnomah County is at 140 cases).
However, ODE protocols require that any unvaccinated person with close contact to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 10-14 days. In our elementary schools, that has meant that one positive case shifts the classroom cohort and the bus cohort to quarantine and remote instruction.
When our Middle Schools and High Schools open next week, one positive case will impact the students in all the in-person classes with the person who tested positive, as well as the transportation cohort. As you can begin to imagine, a few positive cases in a high school or middle school could quickly result in the quarantine of a large portion of the school. Although this protocol will be disruptive, this layer of protection is crucial to prevent the spread of COVID within our school communities.
Fortunately, on April 19th, our 16-year-old students are eligible to be vaccinated. Since this was announced, we have been working with PPS and Multnomah County to create vaccine sites at PPS schools for eligible high school students and PPS families. I am hopeful that this will be a much-needed bridge to connect our most impacted families with vaccines as soon as possible. I will share updates as I receive them.
This pandemic has underscored the fact that schools are a vital part of our community, and that nothing compares to face-to-face connections between educators and students. As educators, we are determined to make this reunion as joyful and purposeful as possible. But with only 22% of Oregonians fully vaccinated, we will not stop advocating for the strongest safety protections. Our students and our communities deserve nothing less.