No more Portland schools to close? Uncertainty looms amid COVID-19 outbreak and teacher shortage

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Two Portland high schools – Cleveland and McDaniel – closed on Friday and will switch to distance education next week amid rising COVID-19 cases and lingering staffing issues that could lead to additional closings in the whole district.

Portland public school officials did little to allay questions and concerns at an afternoon press conference, detailing the uncertainty district leaders face as the conditions in individual schools change from hour to hour.

“Our goal is to keep our school buildings open and to maintain in-person teaching as much as possible,” said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. “We view the closure of our schools to in-person learning and activities as a measure of last resort.”

Guerrero and other officials have admitted such measures could come with little warning, including when a wave of teachers called late in the evening to ask for replacements as they plan to be absent the next day.

Portland Public Schools informed parents and school staff of the Friday high school shutdown by email Thursday night, citing a “significant increase” in COVID-19 infections among staff and students. Together, the two schools serve more than 3,000 students.

“Where we cannot offer enough staff to continue teaching on-site in a safe environment, we will have to implement temporary distance learning until we can reopen,” said Margaret Calvert, the superintendent. region that oversees high schools, in a statement.

However, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard did not show large numbers of teachers isolated due to infection or quarantined due to exposure on Friday afternoon.

It appears the district has switched to distance education at these schools after learning that a large number of teachers, many of whom do not appear to have COVID-19, indicated they would be absent on Friday.

During the press conference, Portland schools officials attributed the discrepancy to a delay in reporting data caused by the dramatic increase in the coronavirus, which reached a record 2,380 infections reported in the county on Friday. by Multnomah.

But they acknowledged that they are not asking teachers to detail precisely why they will be absent and do not know if COVID-19, the flu or other factors have motivated the individual decisions of educators.

In Cleveland, 32 of the school’s 85 or so teachers, or nearly 40%, said Thursday night they would be absent on Friday, and the district has only found 19 replacements to replace them, district officials said. .

In McDaniel, 22 of some 65 teachers, or about 35%, said they would be absent, and district officials were unable to secure replacements for eight of them, they said.

The switch to distance education by the two high schools came a few days after a breakdown in union negotiations with the district to lighten the workload of teachers.

In an email to teachers and other union members on Sunday, union leaders wrote: “We can only recommend educators set personal boundaries that allow them to persevere until conditions improve. . We all need to set realistic expectations of ourselves and help our colleagues to do the same. It’s good to say, “That’s all I can do” and let it be enough.

Since resuming school after winter break, with the highly contagious variant of the omicron circulating in Oregon, a total of 219 staff have had to quarantine or isolate, according to the Dashboard of COVID-19 data from the district, including 12 from Cleveland and five from McDaniel.

Renard Adams, head of assessment and research responsibility, said the district dashboard was taking up to 48 hours to reflect some new positive coronavirus cases or cases of people being required to self-quarantine among the push powered by the omicron.

A large number of teacher absences were not only in the two secondary schools. As of Thursday evening, 431 school district staff eligible for substitutes said they would be absent on Friday, a spokesperson said. The district lacks at least 175 substitute teachers, the spokesperson said.

“I don’t think anyone in the wider community will be surprised that unless conditions improve and we can ensure consistency of staff,” Guerrero said, “there may be other communities. schools where we are temporarily moving to distance education “.

According to the district, its COVID-19 tracking site, which is populated with self-assessments from staff and students isolated or quarantined due to the coronavirus, is updated three times a day. The district is requiring all staff to report a positive COVID-19 test result or if they are quarantined due to exposure, the statement said.

In Cleveland and McDaniel, the staff shortage-induced shutdown prompted the district to postpone extracurricular activities. He offered to provide the students with take-out meals.

A teacher from Cleveland High said the switch to online teaching is seen by most faculty members to be the best for students, given that the teacher reported high student absenteeism during periods of time. four days of school since the winter break. The teacher asked not to be named to protect his students and his own comfort levels with the disclosure.

Indeed, student absenteeism at both high schools was extraordinarily high this week, according to district officials. Cleveland’s daily absenteeism rate fell from 19% on Monday to 28% on Thursday, spokeswoman Ariane Le Chevallier said. At McDaniel’s absenteeism rate started high on Monday, at 25%, and edged up slightly to 28% on Thursday, she said.

The anonymous teacher said most of his classes are experiencing absenteeism rates of 25-30%, due to both students with positive cases of COVID or potential exposures who must be quarantined for long periods of time. periods and students whose families do not feel safe sending them to school in the midst of omicron. With the finals only 2.5 weeks away, he said, students who had to miss days and weeks of teaching were under high stress, he said.

Cleveland teachers learned of Friday’s shutdown and next week’s virtual learning via email Thursday night, he said. At a virtual faculty meeting on Friday morning, the faculty sense was “the fairest thing to do is be able to teach online,” he said.

The district includes 79 other schools that could also face staffing issues as the current COVID-19 outbreak continues. Portland Public Schools said they would decide to close a school based on numerous data points, including the number of workers and staff who tested positive or in quarantine and the number of vacancies without a replacement.

Education editor Betsy Hammond contributed to this report.

– Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632; [email protected]

– Fedor Zarkhin; 503-294-7674; [email protected]

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