What's Next for Schools during the Omicron Surge?

For starters, more schools are likely to move into temporary distance learning

By Julia Silverman January 11, 2022

Students, families, and teachers across the Portland area are bracing for more COVID-related school closures in the month ahead, as the omicron variant continues its sweep across the city.  

Already, three large high schools in Portland Public Schools, a PPS middle school, a PPS K–8 and a charter K–8, a Tigard elementary school and all of the district's middle and high schools, and the entire Parkrose school district (four elementary, one middle, and one high school) have announced temporary closures; rolling closures have been announced in Vancouver, Washington, to compensate for a dearth of bus drivers and the Beaverton School District has warned families that it is very close to the threshold of needing to close.

Even more may soon follow, depending upon how many staff members—and students—notify districts that they will be out, and whether there are enough substitutes on hand to cover the absences. And no one knows whether the closures will stretch beyond a week or if there is a plan to minimize their duration, given that the toll that remote learning took on many students, especially on some of the system’s most vulnerable, has by now been well-documented.

School districts are struggling to accurately track just how many students and staff are out due to COVID; omicron is so transmissible and moving so quickly that publicly reported numbers are almost certainly an undercount. And a positive COVID-19 test or known exposure is not the only reason educators, students, administrators, and support staff might be absent.  

Some staffers are caring for family members who are unwell, some may have colds or the flu or other medical or personal issues; others are anxious about catching and transmitting COVID to elderly or immunocompromised family members, or to children too young to be vaccinated. And some students have completed their quarantine, but are awaiting the all-clear to return to school,  contending with a system backlog as caseworkers and school nurses struggle to keep up with data entry. 

"We want to be there. We want to be in person. We prefer that greatly to being online," says a middle school teacher who works at a district in Portland's southeastern suburbs and requested anonymity to be able to speak more freely. "But our concern is, if we are going to push to stay in person, and go through extreme disruptions in education as a result, I can’t assure you that that is worth it. Schools right now are running on such paper-thin staff that we can’t afford to have situations where we lose more people to quarantine." 

What's more, the teacher continues, with student absences mounting, the teacher is worried about in-person learning's inequities for students who are recovering at home, and about the practical workload for teachers of running two separate classrooms at the same time.

"I am running my normal in-class programming and at the same time, I am providing a totally digitized online curriculum for those that have to quarantine at any moment," the teacher says. "I am obviously putting more effort into the kids who are in front of me at the moment."

The omicron surge also comes at a delicate moment for school districts, which have been dealing with pandemic-related labor unrest since September. At Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, two teachers told Portland Monthly that several of their fellow educators were going from room to room last Thursday, carrying clipboards and gauging interest in how many of their colleagues might consider calling in sick the following day, apparently in reaction to working in both extremely challenging circumstances and under the district’s COVID-era policy decisions. 

Both teachers asked to remain anonymous, to maintain workplace relationships, but Portland Monthly has reviewed text messages between half a dozen teachers that substantiate the information.  

And both said the effort was not sanctioned or organized by the Portland Association of Teachers, the union representing the district’s educators. (Such grassroots efforts are also underway in the Bay Area.)

Portland Association of Teachers President Elizabeth Thiel said Thursday that she was unaware of any such efforts and hadn’t known about the switch to remote learning for Cleveland, and for McDaniel High School in Northeast, until seeing media reports and reading the district’s official notification to parents. 

Thiel ascribed the closures to COVID-related staff absences and the district’s ongoing struggle to fill substitute and education support positions, an issue that’s simmered since September. 

“We have been hearing all week from so many educators who are sick, who have had symptoms,” she says. “Some of those educators have tested positive and reported their data. And we are hearing from lots of people who are awaiting test results. And lots of people who have symptoms of COVID and are staying home out of caution.”

She did outline several COVID protocols that she said the district should update for both students and staff, given omicron’s increased transmissibility, including mandating that even those who’ve been vaccinated get tested after exposure, more guidance and resources for unmasked lunch periods, higher-quality masks, and much more widespread availability of testing. 

One of the teachers who spoke to Portland Monthly said that when asked, they said they weren’t interested in a grassroots effort to coordinate a sick-out, adding, “I know that other people are saying no, too. At Cleveland, just like in PAT, there is no monolithic teacher structure. Teachers, just like students and parents at this phase, we are not all on the same page. People have different levels of comfort when it comes to exposure to the virus.” 

The other Cleveland teacher said it was clear that student attendance had been dropping at the school all week—the Oregonian reported that 28 percent of Cleveland students were absent by late last week—but that their hope had been that the building would stay open for students who “need and want” to be there.

“To me, it is pretty clear that the choice, the opportunity to have this work out organically, was taken away when enough teachers forced the hand of the district by calling out,” this teacher said, adding that they were concerned about the district's decision to ban students at temporarily closed schools from participating in in-person extracurricular activities until buildings reopen. "The only explanation I can come up with is that it is punitive," the teacher says. "The district is trying to maximize the hurt, and the kids are in the crossfire."

Portland Public Schools officials say families should know that if their school has to close, the first closure day will be a planning day for teachers; after that, younger students will meet online with their teachers for whole-class and small-group instruction times, while older students will need to log on during all regularly scheduled class periods. While schools are in temporary distance learning, families will still be able to pick up breakfast and lunch and visit on-campus health centers.  

Reopening a school that has been temporarily closed would happen as positive cases decrease; students and staff will be given the chance to test negative in order to return, said Dr. Cheryl Proctor, the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Instruction and School Communities.  

Early this week, Multnomah County’s public health officials recommended the adoption of new CDC guidelines that say COVID positive school employees can return to work after five days, providing that they show no symptoms and wear a mask. That cuts the current 10-day quarantine requirement in half and could help schools reopen more quickly.

In the meantime, in Portland, the closures of a handful of school buildings has the ancillary effect of easing the demand on the limited pool of available substitutes, which may make it easier for other schools to remain open in the coming weeks—providing that substitutes, too, can remain healthy.

District officials say they are trying to add to the substitute pool, and statewide, the requirement that you have to have a college degree in order to be a substitute teacher has been temporarily waived to help with the staffing shortage.