In the wake of Portland Public Schools temporarily closing several school campuses due to COVID-19-related staff illness and absences, the district announced revised policies on quarantines, school closures and extracurricular activities.
As Oregon sees a coming peak in coronavirus infections due to the highly contagious omicron variant — that peak may hit on or about Jan. 25 — several schools have had to pivot temporarily to remote learning.
In a quick reversal of prior announcements, Portland Public Schools staff said Jan. 11 that extracurricular activities can continue to take place at schools, even if they are closed to in-person learning.
By mid-January, eight different PPS campuses were shut down over the course of a week, as the district reported about 1,700 students and 230 staff at various campuses were out on quarantine or isolation.
Initially the district announced it would temporarily pause sports, performing arts and club activities at schools that were closed. Then staff said they changed their stance, citing the need to keep students in schools, to the extent possible. Staff also said they're taking cues from public health.
"Last week when we made the decision to shift to distance learning, we also made a decision to pause, temporarily, extracurricular activities to really assess our capacity and the safety in front of us," said Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for PPS.
The school district immediately reinstated some limited in-person activities at affected schools.
Garcia said the district will provide in-person academic support and counseling services for students who need it and will immediately resume Portland Interscholastic League (PIL) sports and performing arts, but limit the number of spectators at events.
"We've heard our student athletes and school communities have been good about their health and safety mitigation efforts. We want to continue to reinforce those," PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said.
The district will limit attendance at events to no more than 50% capacity, with a ticket allotment system of five tickets per player or performer, to allow for social distancing of spectators. Spectators 5 years and older must show proof of vaccination.
The news came the district announced its eighth campus closure in a week due to too many staff absences.
District leaders said they evaluate a "matrix of data" before deciding to close a campus to in-person learning. Availability of teaching and substitute staff is the key driver. The district also has activated an emergency operations center to call the shots on COVID protocols and closures.
If a school does close temporarily, teachers will be given a planning day to prepare for remote learning, meaning the first school day of a campus closure will be an asynchronous, or self-led, learning day for students.
Portland Public Schools now will observe a five-day quarantine period, halved from the previous 10-day recommendation, for those who aren't up-to-date on their vaccines and need to quarantine at home after being exposed to a positive COVID-19 case. Students and staff who are fully vaccinated can skip the quarantine, but anyone who came into close contact with an infected person is recommended to get a COVID-19 test five days after exposure, regardless of vaccination status.
"It's a very compressed timeline in terms of how quickly someone goes from having the virus in their nose and throat, to having symptoms or showing a test positive and then how long they're infectious," Dr. Jennifer Vines, Multnomah County Public Health officer, told school board members Jan. 11. "People are probably most infectious in the one or two days before they develop symptoms. Many people will not have symptoms, and we consider them infectious one to two days before they test positive."
Dr. Vines said those people are considered contagious around days three, four and five of their illness.
"I so appreciate the fact that senior leadership has talked about this and looked at capacity, and really, again, what is best for our students," PPS board member Eilidh Lowery said, noting the pause of extracurricular activities "has a detrimental impact on students."
But some questioned whether the district was being responsible to students, families and the broader community by allowing sports to continue during a record spike in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant.
Earlier Tuesday evening, Jan. 11, district officials noted a struggle to keep up with contact tracing.
Board member Herman Greene asked whether the district has the resources to notify a student's teammates and opponents of an infection in a timely manner.
"How are we communicating with the families of those impacted as well as the other teams they were playing against when we find out there was an infection?" Greene asked. "If we find out on a Friday in the height of their transmission, if we're not communicating right away, then you've got 15, 30 players potentially out spreading a virus."
Currently, PPS is allowing extracurricular activities to continue, but athletes and performers are required to wear masks. Over winter break, PPS staff said basketball teams participated in tournaments, resulting in a number of staff and students contracting COVID-19. The mask requirement wasn't in effect for athletes at the time.
Staff acknowledged the inherent risk of infection that comes with playing sports.
"We chose to keep extracurriculars because as educators we're trying to balance what we're hearing from public health with what we're hearing (from the community) that students need to be active and engaged in schools," Garcia said. "If society can remain open, our schools can remain open."
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