UPDATE: Late Thursday evening, March 12, Gov. Kate Brown ordered all schools throughout the state to close until the end of March.
Oregon has urged schools and universities not to shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but some physicians say that's irresponsible advice.
Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday, March 12, that gatherings of 250 people or more will be prohibited for the next month. The governor, along with state education and health officials, urged schools to cancel field trips and all "non-essential school-associated gatherings and group activities."
"Anyone who's had a toddler knows they can run around with a fever and not show symptoms. They're relatively asymptomatic but they're highly infectious." — Dr. Maxine Dexter
But officials urged schools to stay open, saying they provide essential child care for many working parents, as well as access to food and health care needed by vulnerable students.
Some districts said they found the ban on gatherings to be in conflict with advice that schools stay open.
Late Thursday, the Tigard-Tualatin School District in Washington County became one of the first public school districts in the region to close all schools for the remainder of the month.
The district's board of directors voted unanimously to close schools, effective immediately, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Schools will be closed starting Friday, March 13, and they will reopen on March 30 for licensed staff. Students and all school staff will return to classes on Tuesday, March 31, as previously scheduled.
"We understand the hardship this decision will cause for many of our families," said Superintendent Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith. "Our board leads this decision with the health and safety of our staff, students and their families as our top priority."
The advice the state provided to schools doesn't go far enough in effectively stopping the spread of disease, says Dr. Maxine Dexter, a Portland lung and critical care doctor.
"Children are asymptomatic vectors," Dexter said March 12. "Anyone who's had a toddler knows they can run around with a fever and not show symptoms. They're relatively asymptomatic but they're highly infectious."
Dexter teamed up with more than 30 other physicians to deliver a unified message to Oregon leaders about critical steps needed to curb the spread of the virus, many of which, they said, Oregon has been slow to implement, or failed to implement at all.
Dexter, a candidate for Oregon House District 33, said the majority of those who contract the disease will recover without problems, but many can't fight it off, and we have a responsibility to not infect them. She points to the same advice epidemiologists are recommending: "flatten the curve."
It's an attempt to reduce the number of cases overall, to ensure health care resources aren't tapped out for those who need critical care.
"The reason we have to close schools is not to protect children. They're going to be fine," Dexter said. "It's not deadly in the vast majority of most people. It gets much greater in ages 70 and above, and people with co-morbid conditions including cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease and (suppressed immune systems.) Everyone is a transmission vector, so we have to isolate people to keep them from spreading it to others. If you do that, you slow down the impact."
She's not the only one urging Oregon to change course. "Schools need to close," said Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician who also serves as a Multnomah County commissioner. Meieran told the Portland Tribune March 12 that closing schools would stop the high transmission rate of viruses among school children.
"At this point it's not like we're ever truly going to contain this, but what we can do is slow the progression" she said, noting the potential for hospitals and health care facilities to be overwhelmed, as they have been in other countries. "If our systems are overwhelmed, then more people will die."
Are massive public system shutdowns an overreaction to the virus? "I would much rather be embarrassingly over-prepared than tragically unprepared," Dexter added.
Some schools go virtual
Despite Oregon's advice not to close schools, that's exactly what some have done.
Private schools including St. Mary's Academy and Central Catholic High School in Portland announced they would cancel on-campus classes and instead use a virtual learning model, at least for the next month.
In nearly identical messages from both schools, Central Catholic and St. Mary's said the decisions were made "to proactively prioritize the health of our students, families, faculty and staff," as well as "the health and safety of everyone in the community."
"As we continue to learn more about how potentially widespread the coronavirus is both regionally and nationally and health officials' recommendation that social distancing is a key component in slowing its spread, Central Catholic will move to Long-Term Digital Learning starting March 13, with an intended return to school on Monday, April 13," according to the Southeast Portland school.
St. Mary's letter contained the same language.
Neither school had cases of COVID-19, according to their letters, but moving classes online would prevent students and staff from contracting or spreading it.
Colleges and universities followed suit. Portland State University, University of Oregon, Oregon State University and University of Portland, among others, announced that they would keep campuses open but move final exams and classes to online formats in most cases.
In Washington, which has reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases, school districts in three different counties have closed campuses.
Students in Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington, are completing classes online, using laptops, Chromebooks, iPads or other digital devices. Children who can't be home alone, or whose parents can't stay home with them are being sent to their schools and kept in very small groups, while being cared for by community nonprofit organizations like YMCA, Lisa Youngblood Hall, a media representative with Northshore, said Thursday.
"In February 2018, our voters approved a technology levy for computers," Youngblood Hall said. "In addition to starting to get those devices in the classroom, we also started getting devices and hotspots in the hands of students who might otherwise not have access at home."
The Washington school district has had roughly 4,300 requests for tablets and about 500 requests for internet hotspots at home, which they were able to provide thanks to a grant partnership with T-Mobile.
Students connect with teachers and classmates using applications like Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
Skeptics have said the digital learning format may not work for young learners, like those in kindergarten or first grade. "There is a way to learn, even for the very youngest," Youngblood Hall said, noting kindergarteners in her district are already learning the basic fundamentals of coding.
And what happens to providing meals and wrap-around services? Northshore has arranged for 22 meal pick-up sites, transporting lunches and breakfasts by school buses to different schools. The district also arranged delivery for some families.
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