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The council said students feel at risk particularly at lunch, when students gather without masks

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students are concerned about COVID-19 safety during lunch time at West Linn High School.The West Linn High School students who make up the West Linn Youth Advisory Council feel the school's current handling of lunchtime leaves students and staff susceptible to COVID-19 transmission.

The council, which works with the city of West Linn, began discussing its concerns with COVID-19 safety at WLHS during an Oct. 6 virtual meeting. The students have drafted a letter to West Linn-Wilsonville School District officials outlining their concerns and proposing a way for students to stay socially distanced while eating lunch.

"Every day at 11:30, hundreds of students gather in the halls and remove their masks to eat lunch, often in large groups and without social distancing," the letter stated. "Even though a fair amount of students leave campus or eat lunch outside during the lunch period, there is still an overwhelming amount of students and staff at risk inside the building."

West Linn-Wilsonville School District Communications Director Andrew Kilstrom noted that WLHS has an open campus, meaning many students leave the school grounds for lunch, but there are several areas for eating inside the school as well.

"The expectation is for students inside to maintain 6 feet (of distance) if possible," Kilstrom said

During the YAC's most recent Oct. 20 meeting, members discussed similar concerns of students crowded together to eat lunch at the district's middle schools. Kogen Brown and Madeline Brown said based on the accounts of their younger siblings at Athey Creek and Rosemont Ridge Middle Schools, dozens of students all eat lunch maskless in one room.

"Especially since less of these students (middle schoolers) are able to be vaccinated, we feel that changes must be made in order to ensure COVID-19 doesn't spread at our schools," the letter stated.

The council suggested letting small groups of students eat lunch in teachers' classrooms to alleviate crowding in the halls where many students eat.

"We suggest that teachers who are willing to use sign-in sheets allow groups of students to eat in their classrooms at their discretion," the council wrote. "We understand that this plan asks teachers to make their classrooms available outside of class hours, and that this may be inconvenient. We believe, however, that this inconvenience is a small price to pay in exchange for increasing the safety of students during this vulnerable time."

The council said the crowds of students eating together will only grow as the months grow colder and rainier and more students move inside for lunch.

In an email to the Tidings after the Oct. 20 meeting, YAC President Summer Tan said WLHS has always suffered from a lack of eating spaces.

"The schools have asked that students wear masks and eat outside when possible. But with lunchtime particularly, most students have gone back to normal pre-pandemic behavior whether willingly or not simply because it's too cold or wet to eat outside, and there isn't enough space to really have a safe distance between groups," Tan said.

To encourage students to eat outside, even as the weather turns, Kilstrom said the district had ordered several large tents along with picnic tables that will be open to students throughout campus.

Though the YAC's letter focused on COVID-19 safety during lunch, the group also discussed concerns about enforcement of the mask requirement on campus.

Mariam Hassan said in each of her classes, there are at least three or four students who wear their masks under their nose or under their chin.

Other members of the council said they know of students who have repeatedly come to class without a mask at all. Though one student said they've heard in-school suspensions may be used when students repeatedly violate the mask rule, no one knew for sure what the school's official repercussions were.

"The school does have some measures in place to encourage mask-wearing, but we aren't really seeing that enforced to where we feel that all students at WLHS (and at middle schools) are safe," Tan said. "With mask-wearing, there are very limited enforcements both in and out of classrooms, and it is unusual for teachers to ask that students wear their masks correctly (or at all) even if they do appear to have the power to do so."

Kilstrom said that schools work with students on a case-by-case basis when issues with face coverings arise. He also noted that the district encourages students to come to the administration whenever they have health and safety concerns.

According to district data from Oct. 28, four students at WLHS have had COVID-19 so far this year, including one in the past two weeks.

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