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A surge of COVID-19 cases forces quarantine of 700 students in the Central Oregon district

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jason Lee Elementary School teacher Alisa Vuong helps Anna Clutter with a reading assignment during the first day back at school for hybrid learning. Despite distancing protocols and mask mandates in schools, Oregon is still seeing infections among students and staff. Oregon Health Authority reported COVID-19 cases at a handful of Portland schools this week, including an elementary school with five infections.

The latest weekly reported released by the state shows Harrison Elementary School in Southeast Portland had five reported cases among students over the past four weeks, with the most recent case reported April 22. It's unclear whether the infections happened at school or off campus.

Aside from Harrison Elementary, Portland Public Schools also had individual cases at Grant High School on April 22 and just this week, two more cases were reported at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School in Southwest Portland. Those cases have yet to be included in the OHA weekly report.

Portland has largely seen sporadic, individual cases among students at several schools.

That statistic is considerably less dire than the situation at the Bend-La Pine School District in Central Oregon, where about 5% of students are under quarantine orders due to the current surge in COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County.

In Bend, 137 COVID-19 cases were reported at eight different schools from April 19-24, including private schools. The bulk of infections were among students, including 60 at Summit High School and another 20 student cases at Bend High School.

The infections within the Bend-La Pine School District — 58 in the past 10 days — have prompted the quarantine of about 700 students, Bend-La Pine Superintendent Lora Nordquist told the school board Tuesday, April 27.

And even though she doesn't think the majority of these COVID-19 cases are being spread within schools, Nordquist said the district may have to take action soon to prevent additional quarantines, and to support those students stuck at home.

"If our case counts don't start going down fairly soon, we might need to look at a Plan B," Nordquist said. "Not sure what that is, but we have a lot of kids at home right now, and that's a concern."

District leadership also warned that in-person graduation might not be possible in June if community spread of COVID-19 doesn't slow.

"We are going to have a graduation ceremony, but it may not involve many people," Deputy Superintendent Katie Legace said.

However, a districtwide reversal to online school is unlikely.

At the April 27 meeting, Nordquist said in-person school closures would be a school-by-school decision.

In an email to The Bulletin on April 28, Paul Dean — Bend-La Pine's safe and healthy schools administrator — wrote that the district isn't considering online school for all schools, but temporarily returning to distancing learning could be an option for an individual school, if its case counts get too high.

However, school officials still believe these increased student case counts aren't being spread within schools. Repman told The Bulletin that, so far, only one elementary school case, from six weeks ago, has been confirmed as an in-school spread.

The Deschutes County Health Services identified 507 new cases of COVID-19 the week of April 19.

Starting Thursday, April 29, Bend-area health groups, such as Mosaic Medical, began running vaccine clinics within all four major Bend-La Pine high schools.

George Conway, director of Deschutes County Health Services, said vaccination rates are much lower for teens — only about 4% of Deschutes County residents age 19 or younger had received at least one vaccine dose, as of last week, compared to over 90% of residents ages 75 to 84. People age 16 and older now are eligible for vaccination in Oregon.

Despite a comparatively low infection rate in Portland schools reported by the state, some PPS teachers say the district isn't equipped to deal with the risks associated with reopening schools amid the pandemic.

"According to the (Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidelines) there are no amount of COVID cases in a school that would cause it to shut down," Beyoung Yu, a teacher and parent in the district, told the school board April 27. Yu said the district has cases in at least 18 different school buildings.

"We have entire schools that only have only one student eligable to take a COVID test," Yu said. "The district-provided rapid tests are performative. They are optional. What we are witnessing is the normalization of COVID in schools."

The school staffer said Black and brown students are more heavily impacted by the disease and ignoring that makes schools "complicit in COVID's white supremacy culture."

In Portland, schools reopened for in-person hybrid learning beginning April 1. Middle and high schoolers didn't return until April 19 at PPS.

Per the school district's policies, when a student or staffer tests positive, or reports close contact with a positive case, they are asked to fill out a form and given instructions about quarantining.

The Bend Bulletin and Pamplin Media Group are members of the Oregon Capital Bureau.

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