Burning Questions About Back to School 2021
With one week until public schools open in Portland, there’s still a lot of unknowns around what, exactly, kids, families and even teachers can expect when full-time school starts for the first time in 18 months. Administrators have had to pivot to respond to a frequently shifting situation and guidance as the delta variant drove up case counts around the state and filled hospitals to the brink of overflowing, even as new cases have increased much more slowly in highly vaccinated Multnomah County proper, and fewer than 1 percent of Oregon kids with COVID-19 have been hospitalized.
Here’s what we know—and, full disclosure, what we don’t know—about the first day of school and beyond.
Will school open in September as planned?
It looks that way. Though there have been some late-breaking calls for a return to hybrid/cohorting/online-only models, particularly in elementary schools where kids are still too young to be vaccinated, school leaders from the governor on down are holding firm on a return to five-day-a-week, full-time school. They’re pinning that decision on a series of layered safety measures, including vaccine mandates for all school staff, and a universal masking mandate for grades K-12. (A few members of the Portland school board have called for a firm metric of X number of infected people at which point an entire school could be shut down, but a mandated statewide return to comprehensive distance learning has not been telegraphed by Gov. Kate Brown.)
What about lunch? Kids can’t wear masks during lunch, you know.
In Portland, schools are banking on a mild September and on the delta variant peaking as forecast early in the month, and planning on having kids eat outside for at least the first six weeks of school. Schools that don’t have covered playground areas can use federal dollars to purchase tents and seating areas, and kids will have to get used to wolfing down lunch in under 15 minutes. Meal plans will vary from school to school depending on available space, but families should expect some assigned seating to make the circle smaller in case there is a need for contact tracing.
What about quarantining policy, anyway? There have been some alarming headlines lately about quarantines in schools around the South.
Good question. Last spring, one kid testing positive in a cohort or on a school bus route was enough to quarantine an entire class for two weeks. This year, things will look different in public schools—including in Portland—that are following the CDC’s definition of “close contact” when in an indoor classroom setting. This means that if unvaccinated kids are three feet from each other, and masked, then they are not considered a close contact, and should not have to miss school, even if a classmate gets the virus. (Following CDC policy, vaccinated kids who are asymptomatic won’t need to quarantine at all if there is a positive case in their classes.) A big unknown has been whether there will be any kind of live instruction offered for those who wind up in inevitable quarantine, especially given that the technology that would allow them to remote into live lessons at school and participate isn’t in wide use in the metro area. It took student school board representative Jackson Weinberg asking this question directly of Deputy Superintendent Shawn Bird at a televised forum to get even a partial answer to this: Bird said that the district will “make work available on digital platforms,” either district-provided lesson plans or personalized work uploaded by individual teachers. There is also a possibility of students being able to join via Google Meet, Bird says.
Will kids be screen-tested for COVID-19 at schools?
Every district makes their own decision about this, but Portland Public Schools, at least, has done an about-face on this topic in just the last few weeks, as the scope of the much-more transmissible delta variant has come into sharper and more devastating focus. During an August 4 health forum sponsored by PPS, Ann Loeffler, the Multnomah County Deputy Health Director, raised doubts about the wisdom of asymptomatic (or randomized screening) testing for kids, given high costs and false positives. But in an August 10 meeting of the Portland School Board, Bird said that the district would for the first time be offering screening tests to students and staff without symptoms or known exposures. The district has not specified since how often these tests will be given or whether they will be randomized, even after being publicly queried by school board members. Details are still being hammered out with testing partners at OHSU, PPS spokeswoman Karen Werstein said this week, but she did say that the testing will be voluntary, giving families the ability to opt their kids out.
School ends at 3 p.m., or so, but I have to be at work until 5 p.m. What’s up with after-care?
At least in Portland, there is no districtwide policy for this. Rather, whether after-school enrichment classes (which usually happen once a week and are distinct from daily child-care programs) are allowed will be up to the discretion and comfort level of each principal. We do know, thanks to Gov. Kate Brown’s new mandate, that all visitors, volunteers and contractors who pass through schools will have to provide proof of vaccination (unless they have a medical or religious exemption), which may help some administrators feel more comfortable about opening up the buildings for after-school chess clubs, robotics, art, and more. Anecdotally, a handful of principals have already announced they are cancelling after-school enrichment programming for the time being, leaving working parents (again) scrambling. Mandated daily child-care programs at each school often have long waiting lists and are themselves struggling with the nationwide labor shortage. One rather depressing silver lining: Early numbers suggest enrollment is dipping in public elementary schools again, as parents seek other alternatives for the school year, which could lead to both smaller class sizes and more spots opening up in child-care programs.
When will school look more normal again?
If we knew that, we’d be in clover. In Portland, district officials took a step back from that this week when they announced that kids would even have to be masked at outdoor recess, despite scientific consensus that outdoors, more diffuse environments remain less likely transmission breeding grounds, even with the delta variant. State officials have offered no clear metric for when mitigations in schools might be lifted, but instead at a Facebook Q and A last week, offered broader goals: cases trending down significantly, hospitals no longer on the verge of being overwhelmed, high vaccination rates for kids, and the availability of a vaccine for younger children. Of note: a school district in California just mandated that all its students aged 12 and up be vaccinated in order to return to in-person school