'That Friday is burned in my brain'
Before COVID-19 arrived on its doorstep in February 2020, the Lake Oswego School District was focused on three main issues sometimes referred to as the 'three Bs': bond, bathrooms and boundaries.
The district was in the middle of its 2017 capital investment bond, which included a contentious project centered on the rebuilding of the district pool. It was also working to redraw the elementary school boundaries, another controversial issue that would soon be put on hold when schools went remote. And just before COVID-19 quietly spread to Oregon, parents gave public testimony regarding plans for gender-neutral bathrooms in the new Lakeridge Middle School.
All of these topics got pushed to the back burner when the life of a school employee was found to be on the line. Hector Calderón, a building engineer at Forest Hills Elementary, was hospitalized and soon became the first person in Oregon with a confirmed positive test for COVID-19.
When testing confirmed his infection, the Clackamas County Public Health Division contacted Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Lora de la Cruz to give her the news that Oregon's first case of COVID-19 was in her district.
The Review talked to de la Cruz and others directly involved in responding to the initial infection to tell the full oral history of that first week.
On Friday, Feb. 28, school district faculty and students enjoyed unseasonably warm temperatures that topped out at 59 degrees in the Portland area. The two middle schools had the day off for grade prep, and everyone was looking forward to spring break in a few weeks' time.
While there were growing concerns about COVID-19 in the United States, there were still very few confirmed cases. The first non-travel-related case in the United States was confirmed Feb. 26 by the Centers for Disease Control in California; two days later, on this sunny Friday, the CDC confirmed a second non-travel case in Washington state.
Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — before the news
Mary Kay Larson, LOSD director of communications: That Friday is burned in my brain. It was sunny out. And I remember I was thinking about how desperately I needed spring break. I was mapping out a community engagement plan to ease concerns about the gender-neutral bathrooms at the Lakeridge Middle School. And then I distinctly remember getting ahold of the principal at St. Helens Middle School. And they had recently rebuilt their school to gender-neutral bathrooms, and had had similar community concerns. So I had a really awesome phone call with him talking about everything that we were hearing and comparing notes with him, and making a plan to kind of arrange a visit for some of our staff and families to go up and tour their facility and learn for ourselves how it was working for them.
And it was one of those Friday afternoons I was really productive and feeling OK, and getting all this stuff done and organized and queued up for next week. And I remember knowing, though, I needed to get out of the office, because it was my son's last basketball game at Tualatin High School, and I wanted to try not to be there in the heart of traffic.
And the receptionist had come to my office and said, "Hey, there's somebody from the county, and they're just updating their contact list for school districts. And they want to know if they could have Lora's cell phone." And I thought, you know, I don't want to just give out her number without her permission. We knew she was on a conference call or a meeting. So I did the classic walk into your boss's office and set the note under their nose saying, "Can I give the county your phone number?" And she nods her head yes.
Lora de la Cruz, superintendent: I remember Mary Kay walked into my office and said, "This is the number for Philip Mason-Joyner from Clackamas Public Health. And he's just getting all the superintendent's phone numbers." I think that's what she said. And I'll never forget, like, I got that little sticky note. And I put it, I put his number in my phone. And then I texted him and said, "Hi, this is Lora de la Cruz. From what I understand you want my number so here it is." And he wrote back saying, "Oh, I don't need to be in touch with you yet." Which I thought was interesting. And that was around two or three o'clock.
Kirsten Aird, Lake Oswego School Board member, senior operations manager at the Oregon Public Health Division: So my day was in the public health director's office. I was just going about my regular operations role work. And we had a briefing. It was midafternoon, three or something. And we had been doing briefings on COVID.
At that point of the response, we were working really hard because we had Oregonians in other parts of the country who had been on the cruise ships and all of that. So you know, how do we bring them home safely and follow all of those quarantine situations. And I think it was five minutes later, I can't even remember. We were all called back in for an emergency briefing. Oregon's public health lab had the first positive case.
Tony Vandenberg, LOSD executive director of project management: I had just gotten home. It was about 5 o'clock. And so I got home and my family was gone. They were out on a little adventure and I said "Oh this is great, I can just sit down for a minute and relax," and I grabbed the newspaper and I was reading it.
Rob Wagner, Lake Oswego School Board member, state senator: It was during the short legislative session. And I was driving I-5 north in a driving rainstorm and I remember it was about 5:30 p.m. and we were leaving the Capitol and everyone was pretty upset because the Republicans had walked out.
John Wallin, Lake Oswego School Board member: My daughter was on the LO basketball team. She was a sophomore last year and she had been swinging up to varsity. And so, this was I think the last regular season game and it was at West Linn and I had — I believe I had worked from home that day or I had left work early to go watch the game. So I was sitting in the gym of West Linn High School.
Liz Hartman, Lake Oswego School Board member: I think I had just gotten home from work and was just thinking about putting dinner on.
Patrick Shuckerow, Principal at Forest Hills Elementary School: I was taking a shower. I got home from work and usually the first thing I do is I jump in the shower. And it was about 6 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 — evening
Kirsten Aird: Oregon Public Health lab was one of the first labs — not the first lab, but one of the first labs — to be able to confirm and run COVID tests with, you know, this equipment that the CDC had sent out — they were able to validate and confirm the test. And so as a result, we got our first positive case that we were able to test and identify ourselves without being sent back to the CDC.
And while we were there, it was like, "The first case is, it's in public school. It's a K through 12 case." And so my ears perked up because I'm on a school board, and I was like, "Whoo, that's rough." In my mind that's what I'm thinking like, "That's gonna be tough."
And I learned in the moment that it was my school district. And I couldn't tell anyone because I learned that in my profession. And until we had gone through the proper channels of notification — that's what we had to wait for. We wanted to make sure that we weren't live with the media until Dr. de la Cruz had been notified and therefore that she could notify her board.
So talk about awkward situations.
Lora de la Cruz: I got home from work at 5-ish and my bonus son Joey was visiting, and he and my husband were making plans for us to all go out to dinner. But I was going to work out first. And so I sat down on this bench at the end of our bed, and it was maybe getting close to 5:30 then.
I was literally tying my shoes. And my phone rang and it was Philip Mason-Joyner. And I just knew, "Oh my gosh, why is Philip calling me?" And so he said, "Do you have a few minutes? This is Philip. And I also need to call Dr. (Sarah) Present (Clackamas County Health Officer) into the call too. So can you give me just a minute to call her in?" And I just sat for a minute thinking, "I'm gonna get some news about COVID right now." And I grabbed a journal that was — just happened to be a brand new journal that I hadn't even opened yet.
"My phone rang and it was Philip Mason-Joyner. And I just knew, 'Oh my gosh, why is Philip calling me?'"
Mary Kay Larson: I get in my car, driving over from here to Tualatin, 5 o'clock traffic. And I'm going down Boones Ferry, and I'm almost at the high school and I see my phone light up. And it's a text from Lora; (it) said something like, "We may have a case of COVID in our school community." And I remember that moment going, "OK, I'm stuck in traffic, I can't get back to the office in time. I'm almost to the school. I'm just going to pull into the school and call her."
Lora de la Cruz: I feel like time froze. And they both started talking to me. And I started taking some notes. And I sat in that exact spot for about three hours. And my husband checked in and I just said go without me to dinner.
I was also texting the board and texting my team trying to fill them in simultaneously, and I was getting calls. So then that was between 5:30 and 6; we were talking through all of that.
I texted Mary Kay. She was at her son's game, which I didn't realize. She was at her son's game in a gym, in another district somewhere. And I said, "We need to get a communication out because it's going out."
Mary Kay Larson: I pull in, and I give her a call. And I can tell she's got four different calls going.
Patrick Shuckerow: I got a call from our assistant superintendent Jennifer Schiele, and the conversation was brief and she said "Hector has COVID." And you know in that moment it was, I think it was just a few seconds — I took a pause and then my mind went right to "OK, gotta get to work."
At that point Hector had been in the hospital for a while and at that point he was seriously ill. So even the thinking that maybe he had COVID had crossed some of our minds but it hadn't really come forward that that is a real possibility. I think the thinking around COVID was just so new.
Kirsten Aird: Just the awkwardness of sitting in that space and knowing things and needing to wait for the process to happen. And not being able to disclose that. And in my mind working in two very rapid response situations. One is that my job (is) at the Public Health Division and supporting operations and the other is just what my new role was as a board member, and how to support the district and worried and straight up like, "Oh, my gosh, I really hope our employee's OK." Total worry, like, this is a human life that we care about.
Rob Wagner: And I got a call from Pat Allen, who is very famous now. At the time probably folks weren't paying as much attention to his name, who's the director of the Oregon Health Authority.
He said "Rob, it's Pat." He's a school board member in Sherwood, so I had seen him at different conferences and stuff and so I was like, "Yeah so Pat, how's it going?" I thought he was gonna call me talking about some bill.
He's like, "I just want to let you know: I called your superintendent and there's a process that's being put into place right now. The first presumptive case of coronavirus" — I remember he called it coronavirus and not COVID — "has been discovered in Oregon and it was from an employee at Forest Hills Elementary School."
And of course for me, although my kids aren't there anymore, it's the elementary school that I sent all my four kids to and it's the closest school to my house outside of the high school. And so, I'm just thinking to myself, "oh my gosh." So I pulled off the highway at the Chevron gas station in Woodburn and then I just — it started a cascade of phone calls.
Oh god, I'll never forget exactly where I was on I-5 when Pat Allen called me. And I was like "What is Pat Allen doing calling me at 5:30 on a Friday?"
John Wallin: I think it was maybe between the JV and the varsity game and I got a text from Lora that the first case of coronavirus had been found in an employee in the school district.
Well, at that moment I just felt like, "Wow this is — everything is going to change."
Tony Vandenberg: I started getting all these beeps happening on my phone, you know, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I looked at it and it was, "call me. We need to do something quick." And I started going through the texts and it was "Check your email." So I jumped on my computer and there were just a bunch of emails about this first presumptive case at Forest Hills.
Liz Hartman: I was at home and got a text message to the board to watch the news. There was going to be an announcement from the governor and that it was going to involve the Lake Oswego School District.
"I started getting all these beeps happening on my phone, you know, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I looked at it and it was, 'call me. We need to do something quick.'"
Mary Kay Larson: What we knew was the Oregon Health Authority was getting ready to have a press conference at six o'clock. We knew if they were going to announce that it was our school or district that we had to get out ahead of them to our community so that our community would know what was going on.
I rushed out of the office and I forgot my laptop with my stuff. So I was literally like, going through my purse, and I found an envelope. I'm writing notes and, of course, language that is very familiar to us now was brand new. I mean, if you look at the envelope, it has things like "abundance of caution."
I remember when I was waiting for Lora, I was pacing outside of my car. People were — my friends and parents were going into the game and they're like, "Hey, you coming in?" And I'm like, "Um, yeah, just a minute." I couldn't tell them why. I said "I'll see you in a minute." And they kind of had this look like something's going on.
Kirsten Aird: (I was) texting my family, "You better watch the news, important stuff is happening" and not being able to tell my family because (only) a small group of folks know at the district level; it wasn't this mass communication.
Mary Kay Larson: So then I have to say it's like 5:50, 5:55 and I'm waiting to get to go ahead to send out our emergency communication. And all of a sudden I get a call back from Lora. She's like, "do it." You mean send it? And she's like, "Yes, send it," and I'm like "Oh my gosh, OK. So I go into my car and I have to do the emergency comm system from my phone. And it's a whole dashboard thing where you can send out voicemails, emails, texts, Twitter, FlashAlert, all of that, and (it) wasn't letting the voice to text. So I had to actually read the script. It was an out-of-body experience. Like, I have one moment, I have one take to get this message right. And looking back, it was good that it was my voice. Because of the severity of the message, it was important, I think, for people to hear it from a real person and not, you know, computer-generated voice.
Kirsten Aird: A plan was starting to get put in place at the district level; then I shifted and could do what I needed to support the press conference that Friday. And when I think back to that press conference, and what we know about COVID, you know, we were in a jam-packed room.
Mary Kay Larson: And so I send out (the) emergency communication. And then I go into the gym, and I'll never forget: I walk into the gym, and I look over to the Tualatin side of parents, and they're all cheering and you know, game's going on. And I look over to the Lakeridge side of the gym, and parents are looking at their phones and looking at me like, "Is this for real?" And just for context: I think it was the week before when we had someone send out fake snow day notifications. They had created a fake account. So people were very much like, could this be another hoax? So anyway, so I went in and I said, "Yes, it's for real. Can someone drive home my son? I gotta get back to the office."
And actually, I remember they were getting close to halftime. And I looked over and my son shot a three right before the buzzer. That was his last basketball game that he will ever play — he's decided not to play basketball anymore. So I did get that moment. Like, I remember watching him do it. And it was like — I was still kind of in shock of everything going on. But I was like, "Oh, wow, look at that. So proud of him. OK, I gotta go."
Tony Vandenberg: I got on the phone and I started calling some folks that I know of in building restoration and emergency response who deal with fire, smoke and other hazards as a starting point, and I got in touch with a company that I've worked with in the past called ServePro. Fortunately, I had called three other companies of similar nature and ServePro got back to me and they said, "Oh I'm glad that you found us. We have a guy in California who actually lives in Washington, but he's heading up all of the Army Corps facilities related to the COVID pandemic." So the local branch put us in touch and I said, "OK I need to do something quickly. I need to get this building ready for kids to come back and I need it done over the weekend." And so this is Friday and they said, "OK, we'll meet you there at 9 in the morning tomorrow with a plan, a proposed cost of what it would take."
"I looked over and my son shot a three right before the buzzer. That was his last basketball game that he will ever play — he's decided not to play basketball anymore. So I did get that moment."
John Wallin: And at some point I found out — I don't know if it came up later in the text — that there was going to be a press conference from the governor. I decide I'm going to go watch the press conference. The game was over at that point. I think there might have been a boy's game after. In any case, I found sort of a space in the high school. I do remember as I'm walking, looking for a place to watch it on my phone, I'm just looking at people everywhere just kind of interacting and being close to each other and looking at the stands. Now, thinking back on it, it's kind of a little bit horrifying.
I got onto the feed early, and I think you know that Kirsten Aird on the board works for the health authority. And ... I was watching the stream when it was live but there wasn't anything happening, and actually she popped her head into the room. I saw her come into the room for a second.
Kirsten Aird: Literally behind the scenes setting up making sure — I mean, I was moving chairs beforehand. At that point, it's all hands on deck. And we're just trying to make this thing work and look good on a dime. I think John Wallin sends me a text message. And he's like, "I see you."
I helped get all the media back in the building. So I met the media and greeted them, pulled them back into the room.
John Wallin: And then of course everybody knows about it. Everyone around. I went back to my seat. Everybody's talking about it. Several people know that I'm on the school board. They ask me if I know anything. I knew we were gonna have a press conference the next day so I think I gave them the information that I had.
At some point in the game enough of the West Linn fans realized what was happening and they started chanting, "You've-got-COVID!" This is not to rip on them. I'm sure at the time it was funny or different or whatever.
Liz Hartman: I watched the text messages start coming in until there was a decision that there would be a press conference on Saturday morning, which is totally unusual for our district. But it meant that this is serious stuff. And I think you just get a drop in your stomach saying, "We're going to be in for some rough weeks ahead."
Patrick Shuckerow: There was a lot of questions from staff. A lot of concerns for Hector. And we had a pretty good relationship with Hector's family, especially amongst the staff, so there was some outreach to his wife, just offering well-wishes. Knowing that they were in a really vulnerable place, also not wanting to bother them. It was a lot of uncertainty. It was a lot of just being there for people and just understanding that people were in a place where they're scared. They're thinking about their own exposure.
Liz Hartman: I have a Forest Hill teacher that lives on my little street of eight houses. So I called her after that. And I know she was thinking about how she was going to be responding to her family.
So I guess then I started talking with the other neighbors because a couple of them worked at different school districts. One was at North Clackamas, and one was at Tualatin. So it was kind of like as it's happening in Lake Oswego, when is it going to happen other other places? So I think, at least in our neighborhood, everybody was on high alert pretty, pretty quickly.
Mary Kay Larson: (I) called Lora and said, "I'm heading back to the office," and she said, OK, I will, you know, I'll meet you there. I just knew at that moment — like, OK, my phone is blowing up; my email's going crazy, but I just need to get back to the office. So that was a very long (drive) — it felt like it was an hour; it was probably 20 minutes.
I get to my office, and pretty much I have a standing desk, and I, for the next week, I don't think I changed position. I remember standing at my computer and the whiteboard is behind me. And it was kind of a toggle between what I was writing and what I was writing on the whiteboard and then turning to the left, where two people can sit and so you know, I have this vision of Lora sitting there for hours. I remember I pretty much was planted there for a week straight.
Lora de la Cruz: So I came and met her at the office. And I want to say that we stayed here until close to midnight. Someone bought us dinner. I don't remember who. It may have been a board member. I honestly don't remember who — it may have been a board member, or it might have been my husband. I'm not even sure.
No communications have been created or protocols for any of this for school districts. So there wasn't even somewhere we could turn to. So we were looking at the CDC website, getting information from all these phone calls, taking crazy notes.
Mary Kay Larson: We worked on two things: The county had started to, they helped draft an initial message that we then took, and made it work for our community — "This is what happened. This is what we know. This is what we're working on." And then we also set up a press conference for the next day.
"Someone bought us dinner. I don't remember who. It may have been a board member. I honestly don't remember who — it may have been a board member, or it might have been my husband. I'm not even sure."
Lora de la Cruz: It was a very controlled chaos. And I always say chaos, because it was creating something that didn't exist for a scenario nobody had experienced yet.
The board was asking, "What can we do to support you?" And I didn't know yet. I didn't know until more time went by.
Rob Wagner: Since I was the board chair I was checking in pretty regularly. But I really did trust Mary Kay and Lora to do a good job working with the media, working with local public health to be able to have the kind of educated response that we needed the next day. So I think that I was really trying to respect the fact that we had hired Lora, hired this amazing professional that was working with our team. So a lot of it was I was trying to not get in her way.
Mary Kay Larson: It was the end of season for youth basketball. So there was a lot of calls from organizers and parents wanting to know, "Can we play?" And then we needed to answer that.
Kirsten Aird: I remember talking to Lora, and suggesting that I thought we should cancel the basketball tournament that weekend. And if we were going to do that, we'd have to notify teams immediately. And the reason I felt that that was important was again, from an operations and logistics perspective, managing our space, as we were trying to learn and figure out, you know, how this disease spreads. Let's just pause and not do a basketball tournament that is going to invite hundreds of kids from all over the region into our buildings. And that didn't land well. I mean, there were some parents who were really upset.
And I appreciate that. Looking back, you know, we had numbers that were so low. But I felt in that moment, it would have come off as if we were tone deaf to the fact that we had the first community spread within our community.
Mary Kay Larson: I remember coming home, and being super amped. And everyone in my house had gone to bed, the house was dark. I tried to go to sleep. I kind of slept but I remember waking up at three in the morning, thinking, "I've got a press conference at noon today." So I sat down and drafted the script. And so which, looking back on it, I don't know how we would have been ready, had I not done that.
Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020
On Saturday, Forest Hills was deep cleaned and the district hosted a press conference where de la Cruz and Dr. Sarah Present of Clackamas County Public Health spoke on the district's response to the first case.
Tony Vandenberg: So I woke up in the morning and I drove over to the school and met these guys (from ServePro). And we went over the proposed plan and I had been talking to this individual as he was driving up from California throughout the night and earlier in the morning, and we met on site. We went over some of the paperwork and at that point I gave him the go-ahead.
Lora de la Cruz: That morning lots of things were going on (at the central office). The team was here. The whole executive team was here. The board was here for you know, as we got closer to the press conference, I want to say they were here for an hour, 45 minutes before that, because they wanted to be supportive.
Rob Wagner: We're sitting there in the little break room. So it's funny, right, because we — again, we weren't really thinking about viral exchange, right? Breathing on anyone. Masks. Masks were months away. And so, I remember looking at John Wallin and I think we were trying not to touch things. We wanted to make sure that we were not touching the same surface or something. And that was kind of — I just remember that feeling.
Lora de la Cruz: I remember the board and I were in the break room. And I went — I think we were washing our hands. And I remember I washed my hands quickly and was drying them and John Wallin said, "You know, you're supposed to count to 20." I went back and washed my hands again and counted to 20. That was like the beginning of, you know, one learning that we all took into the full next year. I have to tell you that every time I wash my hands, honestly, throughout this year, I thought of John saying, "I think you're supposed to count to 20."
Patrick Shuckerow: So for that press conference I was getting ready to go, and it was pretty short notice that they wanted me to be there. So Frank Luzaich, the director of elementary programs, called me and said, "Alright get ready; we need you here in about 45 minutes." So I was getting ready to go and just a few minutes later he calls me back and he says, "Nevermind, stay home. You've also been exposed, so we can't have you there around other people."
Rob Wagner: Our team was helping people set up cameras and that kind of stuff. We really were there just to provide support. I think we were there to show solidarity for the district administration in having the response that they needed to have at the time.
Tony Vandenberg: It was strange going to the building knowing that this is where the first presumptive case was — not knowing anything about what was going on. Unlocking the building and touching the handle for the first time was kind of like "OK, who touched that handle? Is it still there?" Because we didn't know what the dwell time was either and if that was gonna be a concern.
So I had my hand sanitizer with me of course. And the ServePro folks, they had said, "You don't need to have full respiration or anything like that; you just need an N95 and that's more than enough for what we're dealing with here. And of course, they show up with full respiration and gloves and they had a whole protocol.
We went into the building. We donned all of our personal protective equipment, walked through the building and then as we came out we had already had the plan, and at that point I released them to proceed and there was a point during the conversation all the reporters jumped in their cars and left and that was when the (press conference) started.
Video courtesy of KGW
Lora de la Cruz: I remember feeling and thinking, "Wow, this is all such new information. It's new information for me to relay. And I want to be sure I'm relaying it accurately." I also want to be careful that we're protecting, you know, the identity of our employee. And I know that at one point, I said "he," but I actually felt fine about that. We were just doing the best we could with a scenario that was so new, that we didn't have additional information. So in some ways, I felt like I was repeating myself. But I also felt like there wasn't more to say, because we simply did not have more information at the time.
John Wallin: I just flashed back to all the press conferences that I've watched. And I'm often, whenever I watch them, I always watch the people in the background because I think it's such an interesting position to be not the person who's speaking but you're the person kind of in the background and what do you do? And how do you look? And what's the right sort of expression to have on your face?
But actually for the content I was, I mean, I was just really impressed with the amount of planning and just the detail that was ready with all the contingencies they thought of. There was a plan of action in place and that we were moving forward to do what we thought needed to be done at the time, which was close Forest Hills for a period of time to clean it and get the kids back there as soon as possible.
Kirsten Aird: We have to model doing this in a respectful, responsible way, and be clear and articulate. And, this is new territory in responding to something of this nature. I think we wanted to be there for Lora, I think, wanted to be there for each other. And it was really being in solidarity.
I thought Lora did a great job, that she communicated clearly.
Mary Kay Larson: My dad is one of eight. I have 21 cousins around the country. And I would have aunts and uncles from Montana, and Massachusetts, and Seattle, texting me and calling me and being like, "I think I saw you on the news."
John Wallin: I think (of) my concern of the employee that had been affected. We now know that it was the building engineer, Hector Calderón. It was actually funny to me that I think it was later that night, the 29th, a friend of mine who had moved out of LO a few years ago, his kids had gone to Forest Hills and I didnt know yet who it was. It was not revealed to me. I knew no information other than it was a school employee. And I didn't press on it. But he called me up to say, "How's Hector doing?" and I said, "I don't know what you're talking about." And he said, "Oh, well all the parents at the school know what's going on." So everyone knew but, you know — the grapevine had gotten around.
Mary Kay Larson: I'm sure I got home late that day. But I don't remember. My friend cuts my hair and my daughter's hair. And she comes to our house. And I came home that afternoon and she was there. She's also a parent in the district. She's amazing. And I remember her looking at me and me looking at her like, "Oh my gosh, this is really, you know, this is going on." Yeah. But it was, but it was — the reason I say that is going from this very intense experience in the office — just intense in the fact of the urgency in which we were trying to figure things out and get things pulled together. And then coming home and walking into the kitchen, to my daughter getting her haircut and just my husband, you know, getting pizzas in the oven, and it was just like normal. And that was — it was a weird juxtaposition.
Lora de la Cruz: My stepson was in town. And I know that after the press conference — because it feels like I didn't see my husband or him between, you know, Friday evening and Saturday afternoon when I got home on Saturday afternoon — they were just, you know, they had watched the press conference and they were so curious about everything. I was just sort of sitting with them and talking about the whole experience and kind of just processing it all, for the first time since the night before.
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Larson and de la Cruz met at the district office to prepare for the week to come.
Mary Kay Larson: We needed to get communication out to teachers and staff and parents about what the next week was going to look like. And I naively came in in my workout gear thinking that I would go work out and then eight hours later, maybe 10 hours later I got home. And that was Sunday.
Lora de la Cruz: Mary Kay and I had to create so much that didn't exist that we just kept — we were in like, constant work mode to create things like, you know, information about safety measures for coronavirus and how to talk to your child. We found that one from NPR how to talk to your child about coronavirus. And so we were scouring the internet and talking to (district nurse) Ann Nelson and to public health about what kinds of things we need to make sure that our community knew. We were looking for how other folks have done this, but there weren't school districts who had done it.
John Wallin: I think my daughter might have had a basketball practice the next day or something. I can remember going up to the school for something and it was late in the evening and I saw — I looked over to where the district office was and I saw Mary Kay's car. I saw Lora's car. I saw other administrative cars. That was going throughout the weekend. I think there was some text chains about should we take them some pizza or, you know, we gotta do something. They just went all-in on addressing everything.
Lora de la Cruz: There were other districts that reached out to me and other superintendents who said, "How did you communicate X, Y or Z" and I was able to either share those documents or point them to our website so that we could be a resource for others. We were definitely very much in touch with Tony so that we could keep informed about what had been cleaned, what hadn't, and we could be in touch with principals to let them know. We wanted the buildings to be completely vacant, except for the folks who were cleaning. So that was a coordinated effort over the weekend.
Monday, March 2 - Wednesday, March 4
For many, the early days of the next week blurred together.
Patrick Shuckerow: I remember those three days were just really busy because we were working with county health and just understanding what is the availability in tests, for example, and at that time it was really, really limited. And so there was, I believe, about 14 staff members. And so we were getting them tested that night. I called each staff member and I told them where to go and it was literally like, "Go to this parking lot at 6 p.m." And again for the county to release that number of tests was, that was not clear either. We didn't know the availability of testing. We didn't know how accurate the test was, so everything was uncertain. And so when all of those tests came back as negative, then we decided for sure that we were gonna reopen.
Lora de la Cruz: I feel like nothing sort of in the typical routine happened for a while. And everything was about this. I was also getting lots of emails with varying perspectives, from families who wanted us either to close the entire district or to not close anything, which you know, that diversity of perspective has continued throughout this whole time. But that was kind of the beginning of when I was getting a lot of input about what it was that folks thought we should do.
Liz Hartman: It was an impressive response. And it was an impressive elevation of the importance of dealing with that quickly to ensure health because I have to say I think, Lake Oswego has been aware. I know the businesses were immediately aware, I remember talking to one like the next day after — it must have been Monday after the press conference — who said, "We're wiping down every handle; we are not taking any chances because we are in the Forest Hills neighborhood."
Whenever they're colds or flu, you know that if the grade school had (it) that they all have brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends who are in the junior high or high school. So it's not just linear; you can't just control it in one elementary school, because everybody's interconnected in the community.
It didn't pass through that way with this one. Because it was the engineer at the building, rather than an actual child or family that had it.
Kirsten Aird: All the other schools went back on Monday. So the other schools were going along, and that was fine. And I had kids in both schools; that was totally fine, and on buses. And then we had the tournament, and my son actually played in that tournament, and I went — it was fine. There were a ton of people there, but it was a fine event.
Tony Vandenberg: We knew that we were probably in it for the long haul after that — that COVID was in Oregon. I had prepared some statements about what we did at Forest Hills that I worked with Mary Kay on releasing the communications about what we did to make sure the building was safe to return. And then I really started working on, "OK well what do we need to do when this continues at all of our other schools, because we can't continue to pay for this intense deep clean." We need to make sure that our staff is trained. We started assessing our buildings, our equipment, our cleaning disinfectant that we use.
Thursday, March 5, 2020 — Forest Hills Elementary School reopens
Lora de la Cruz: That was a very early morning. Mary Kay and I had been joined at the hip during all of that time, and she and Diana and I had talked about logistics and when we were going to meet and Mary Kay had, of course, set up the coordination of the press conference. And it was really early, it was really cold.
Mary Kay Larson: So from the very moment this all started we wanted to be as transparent as possible and so we did the press conference at Forest Hills because we wanted people to see that everyone was doing OK. That was before people were wearing masks. That was when public health was talking about, "Don't touch your face."
Lora de la Cruz: It was really cold and at the end of the press conference, you probably remember, I wiped my nose because my nose was running because I was so cold. I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, we're telling everyone not to touch their face and I just wiped my nose." And I have to tell you that I was both horrified and thought it was hilarious.
Tony Vandenberg: I was confident in the building's cleanliness of course. I had a clean bill of health from a national award-winning restoration company like this and I had full confidence in that. But I was thinking, "OK, we're gonna come back but what if this happens again? I don't have the equipment yet. I dont have the expertise or the training for our staff and I don't know if we have all of the right chemicals." So I was working with our facilities department and they were doing our own research. My biggest thought was, "What if this happens again?" And, "Will we shut schools down?" And sure enough we got to the point where schools started to close all around us.
Lora de la Cruz: I would say that I was really glad to have kids coming back. And I also knew from you know, input from families, that some felt comfortable coming back and some didn't. I think people in general, we're all feeling very cautious and wanting to be very careful, but to be very welcoming to our students. And I mean, in the back of our minds, we all had a lot of just continuous prayers and concerns for Hector. And I think that Forest Hills felt really delighted and happy to have folks back, but there was a somberness to it, too, because they were all concerned about Hector. And there was just, again, a lot we just did not know about COVID-19 at the time.
Patrick Shuckerow: I know one thing that was a very Forest Hills thing to do, as is a lot of other elementary schools, was you give high-fives; you give hugs. And so I remember that as being just a strange thing like, "OK, we need to stay distant." So you can't give your traditional 200 hugs. We're so used to high-fives and hugs and now it's waves and smiles, which is great. It's fine. But that little change was just just the very tip of all the change we were going to see throughout the year.
Mary Kay Larson: I remember families walking up and bus•es coming in and it just seemed like a very calm, quiet, excited day. And now I think back on it and we were so excited for the kids to come back after being out for three days.
In the moment I remember thinking, "Oh good. We got through that." I mean that's honestly where I was at.
Patrick Shuckerow: In a lot of ways it felt like a normal day. I want to say the word "unusual" but that doesn't really do it justice. And in a lot of ways it was very, very normal.
Rob Wagner: I think I was still just in the "Where do we go from here?" I don't think anybody was anticipating what was going to happen, the way that it did. I don't remember thinking, "What are we gonna do when this hits other schools?" But it just seemed like kind of a mitigation strategy. I wasn't thinking about superspreader events and stuff like that, so that wasn't really in my consciousness.
John Wallin: I think there was kind of that sense of, "We dodged a bullet; we solved this problem." I think there was the sense that, "We're gonna go back." Maybe in the back of my mind I thought that it would come back, that we would have to figure out how to react. But I don't think on that morning I had contemplated that we would be closing schools for two weeks, let alone a year. I've often thought back on just sitting in that gym between the games trying to — just picturing myself there in that crowd, the last time I was in a crowd really.
"My biggest thought was, 'What if this happens again?' And, 'Will we shut schools down?' And sure enough we got to the point where schools started to close all around us."
Lora de la Cruz: We all thought it was going to get under control. And that it was a period of a few weeks that were really hard, but that we've moved past, and that didn't come to pass. I still have that one little blue journal that I never wrote anything else in ... because I wanted just to preserve that moment in time when I sat down on that ottoman in my room and wrote those notes. So it's just like this time capsule of a journal, a thick journal with maybe a quarter of the pages written in it and never written in again.
The Lake Oswego School Board held an emergency meeting to discuss closing the district for an "extended spring break" Thursday, March 12, just one week after students returned to Forest Hills. Surrounding districts were having similar conversations around the same time.
That night, Gov. Kate Brown ordered all schools in Oregon to close the following Monday through the end of March. This announcement came on the heels of her four-week ban on gatherings of 250 people or more. More stringent lockdowns were soon to come.
Lake Oswego students did not return to in-person learning for almost a year.
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