To stick with online instruction via Portland Public Schools this fall, families will need a doctor's note.

Oregon’s largest school district will only allow the students at highest risk from complications of COVID-19 or other medical conditions—or those who live with family members who are immunocompromised and cannot receive the vaccine—to attend its new virtual school, which opens this fall. 

And children who do fit those criteria will need to seek admission to the new PPS Online Learning Academy via a lottery, similar to those used for admission to magnet schools and language immersion programs in Portland. 

Information about the new school has been rolled out quietly. Instead of a district-wide blast, students who remained in virtual learning last spring—roughly one-third of the 49,000 kids enrolled—are being given first crack at entering the lottery. 

But many of those families kept their kids home in spring of 2021 not because of medical conditions, but because they were worried about the spread of COVID-19, particularly for students too young to get vaccinated. Under the district’s plan for the PPS Online Learning Academy, that’s not enough of a reason to apply for admission to the all-virtual option this fall. 

When Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero spoke to the school board about plans for continuing a virtual option in the fall—a move that a number of other big-city school districts have decided against, preferring to focus on getting kids back into classrooms after a year spent learning via screen—he said the goal was for the model to serve families who “had a very real reason for not wanting to come back to school yet.” 

But those exact reasons have been unspecified, until now. 

According to the new criteria, interested students will need documentation from a medical provider that their health could be at risk from returning to the classroom this fall because of COVID-19, or from a family or school-based counselor who can document a “qualifying extenuating medical circumstance.” Priority goes to those who are at specific risk of complications from COVID-19; additional weight is given to families who live close to or below the poverty line. 

Those who are not approved due to space limitations will be placed on a waitlist, the district says.  

Enrolling in the new virtual school means a significant time commitment from caregivers at home to help kids stay focused and on track—between four and six hours a day for elementary school students, and between one and three hours per day for middle and high school students. 

The district is asking enrolled students and their families to consider remaining in the program for a full year; at least a full semester is required, which could be a deterrent for families who want to return to their neighborhood schools after younger kids are able to get vaccinated, which is expected by the fall. 

Information about what daily schedules will look like at virtual school is still sparse. Elementary students, the district says, can expect “some synchronous, or live, instruction with a PPS teacher,” while older students “will be able to control their own pace each day, and have independent learning options supported by a certified PPS educator.” Because it is virtual school, younger kids could spend up to 50 percent of their school day on screens; for older kids, that tops out at 80 percent, the district says, though time is built in for reading, writing, science experiments, and other non-screen activities. 

The model Portland is following is a departure from other area school districts. For example, the Beaverton School District’s Flex Online Academy opens enrollment to all, until capacity levels based on staffing are met. Hillsboro’s Online Academy also does not require proof of medical concerns. Oregon does have a number of statewide online charter schools that are available without medical requirements for families who hope to stay virtual this fall but don’t meet Portland Public Schools’ criteria. 

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