Portland school sports continue despite COVID closures
In a quick reversal of prior announcements, Portland Public Schools staff said Tuesday evening, Jan. 11, that extracurricular activities can continue to take place at schools that are closed to in-person learning.
Initially the district announced it would temporarily pause sports, performing arts and club activities at schools that were closed. 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," Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for PPS, said Tuesday.
PPS will reinstate some limited in-person activities at affected schools immediately.
Garcia said the district is working to 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.
Guerrero said the district is weighing a ticket allotment system that would allow for social distancing of spectators in a gymnasium.
The news came shortly before the superintendent announced a sixth PPS campus would temporarily close and move to distance learning due to too many staff absences. PPS reported 1,700 students out of school in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 on Jan. 11. The majority were in isolation after testing positive or being presumed positive.
"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, 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."
Renard Adams, head of research, assessment and accountability for PPS, said "a matrix of data" is used to determine which buildings get closed and events get canceled.
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