In the delicate negotiations over when and if children around Oregon might be able to return to school in 2021, one question crops up again and again: how safe can we make indoor classrooms?
Air quality and ventilation—potentially pricey items that teachers say must be addressed before kids return—are emerging as key sticking points, while regular testing of educators, a strategy that’s in use in New York, Colorado, and other states, is not part of the public conversation in Oregon.
“We know washing hands, wearing masks, keeping distance, and movement of air are the most important for keeping people safe,” said Steve Lancaster, a social studies teacher at Lincoln High School, during a November 19 bargaining sessions between the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools. “If you are not doing one of those four well, you are not keeping people safe.”
Within PPS, he said, “The standard for air quality [seems to be] do the best we can with whatever the building has. That is not a good answer to air quality questions, particularly considering the really dilapidated state of many of our building systems.”
Addressing the air quality issue now would clear an important hurdle, making for a quicker transition back to some form of school later, when cases have stabilized. But it’s difficult to pin down exactly what improvements, if any, are underway at many of Oregon’s 197 school districts.
In late May, the state received $121 million in grant money from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER. Among other uses, that money is intended for “training staff on sanitation and preventing the spread of infection diseases,” and “purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean facilities.”
About $6.5 million of the grant was sent to a separate fund focused solely on helping schools get kids the computers and hot spots needed to get logged on to distance learning, said Mike Wiltfong, school facilities program manager for the Oregon Department of Education, who tracks this spending.
That doesn’t necessarily mean districts are sitting on their hands, Wiltfong said—they could be overhauling ventilation systems in aging buildings and installing new air filters but waiting until all purchasing is complete before submitting receipts (akin to turning in all your work expenses at the end of the month, rather than one by one).
And Wiltfong points out that while $114 million might sound like a lot of money, it’s spread thin across so many school districts. For example, the Portland Public Schools district’s share of that funding works out to about $8.4 million, though the district has only submitted reimbursement claims for $11,000 so far.
“The needs grossly outpace what we have currently available for school districts,” Wiltfong said, pointing to the high cost of overhauling heating and ventilation systems for old school buildings. “In the grand scheme of things, this is not a lot of money to address aging infrastructure.”
And yet, as studies emerge from around the country and the world about how to safely reopen schools, researchers say say there are lower-cost interventions that can go a long way. For example, a recent report from the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University highlights the importance of opening windows, using window fans and box fans to keep air moving, adding high-efficiency indoor air filters, and using portable air cleaners, as opposed to installing entirely new, and very pricey, HVAC systems.
So, what exactly are Oregon schools doing to make classrooms safer now? Portland Public Schools spokesperson Karen Werstein says the district is working with consultants to “determine how to maximize airflow at all of the district’s schools,” a tricky prospect in a district with a handful of new buildings and many more aging ones, and “researching the availability of stand-alone air purifiers for spaces that may have inadequate air circulation.” (HVAC retrofits and installations can also be addressed via money from the 2020 school bond that voters passed in November, she added.)
Right now, with some teachers leading virtual learning from their classrooms, heating and ventilation systems are turned on two hours earlier than usual and stay on two hours later, to maximize airflow. When and if kids return this school year, cleaning and sanitation efforts throughout the day will focus on “high-touch areas,” Werstein added, like doorknobs, and cleaning supplies will be provided in each classroom for use as needed.
Elsewhere in the metro area, the much smaller Lake Oswego School District has its blueprint for an eventual return to the classroom prominently displayed on its website, including specific guidance on installing plexiglass dividers in rooms with shared tables and having students enter through assigned doors each day with a verbal screening for trouble signs, like problems breathing or chest pains.
In Springfield, the school district purchased 500 new air filters this fall, using $265,000 in federal money. In Roseburg, the Douglas County School District spent some of its federal money on hiring nurses, who oversee a school specific contact tracing program. At one point this fall, all of the district’s schools were open for at least some in-person learning, though that is no longer the case.
One big question mark for Oregon schools is a testing program reserved just for teachers and students, a strategy that has been used in Rhode Island and New York City, and could be coming to Washington state, where the Seattle Times is reporting Gov. Jay Inslee is considering a pilot program that would offer biweekly tests to all teachers and staff in selected districts.
In Oregon, though, testing has been in notably short supply in the state, even for those who’ve been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of coronavirus but are asymptomatic.
“I am very disappointed at Oregon’s testing strategy and implementation,” said Dr. Lisa Reynolds, a pediatrician who will begin serving in the state House of Representatives starting in January, as a Democrat from Portland. “Absolutely, a robust testing strategy around schools, and contact tracing, would be huge and really beneficial. I have not heard any language around that when it comes to a school reopening plan.”
Meanwhile, the lack of in-person schooling is taking its toll on Oregon’s children. In her daily practice as a doctor, Reynolds says she’s seeing the daily costs of remote learning, which she describes as, “a huge uptick in mental illness issues, the emotional strain on kids and families, and then, of course, the achievement gap.”
Teachers say they are acutely aware of the challenges of remote learning but worry there may not be a way to make schools safe enough for a widespread return before the pandemic has run its course.
During the November 19 bargaining session, Emily Markewitz, a third-grade teacher at Vernon School in Northeast Portland, said she worries about everything from hygienic bathroom usage to wiggly kids staying six feet apart from each other in line. “No matter how much careful planning and thought is done, there’s just some aspects of in-person education that cannot be made safe or feasible,” she said.