At Cleveland, 10 adults are currently in isolation, and three more are in quarantine due to off-site exposure, out of a total of 84 teachers. Elsewhere in the district, there are a handful of schools with similar numbers of staff quarantining and isolating — at Mount Tabor Middle School and Vernon K-8, in particular—but those schools so far have not announced closures. The dashboard, however, is not necessarily updated in real time, and may not reflect the true spread of cases.
The news comes against a backdrop of labor strife between the Portland Association of Teachers and the school district. Representatives for the teachers’ union argued this fall for substantially more planning time to be built into the school day and for up to six non-instructional planning days to be added to the calendar, citing widespread emotional exhaustion and pandemic-exacerbated workload. The district countered by offering more limited early release days and flex periods, but fewer non-instructional planning days, citing the documented toll that remote learning took on students’ academic, mental, physical and social-emotional health.
Negotiations came to an impasse over winter break, and the teachers’ union announced that it was withdrawing from the bargaining table.
As the Omicron variant has spread across the country, some school districts have switched back to a remote learning model; elsewhere, the debate has gotten more contentious, as in Chicago, where teachers have refused to work in school buildings, and the district has responded by pulling their salaries. Meanwhile, in San Francisco on Thursday, 20 percent of teachers and aides were absent from public school classrooms after a group of educators publicly called for a sick-out to protest what they termed a lack of COVID safety protocols.
Elizabeth Thiel, the president of the Portland Association of Teachers, says reports have been coming in all week from teachers who are sick, who have symptoms and are awaiting test results, and who are caring for family members who have COVID. And she says the district’s substitute shortage—a story echoed in school districts across the country and made even worse by Omicron’s spread—means that it’s virtually impossible to cover all the absences.
“We have been facing a staffing shortage,” Thiel says. “It’s been a growing concern throughout the fall. Omicron and the absences that it has created has brought it over the tipping point in some of our schools, and I am concerned that the same might be true for other schools.”
Given Omicron’s increased transmissibility, Thiel said, current safety protocols should be updated to protect students and staff, including current guidance which says that those who are fully vaccinated and symptom-free are not required to test or quarantine after exposure to someone who is COVID positive.
“Right now, being fully vaccinated does not mean that you are not able to spread COVID,” Thiel says. “We have to rethink the guidance about exposure and access to testing. We don’t have enough testing for people—since late July, the Oregon Department of Education has recommended that we have frequent COVID testing to keep schools open safely. Here we are 5 months later and we still do not have adequate COVID testing available. It is extremely frustrating." (She noted that testing access is a national problem that the district on its own could not be expected to solve.)
She's also calling for the district to protect students and staff by updating their mask guidance: “I read all the time about how cloth masks are not adequate. Students and educators are welcome to wear the best masks, but we don’t have a policy to require them and we don’t supply students with KN-95s.”
For students, news of the closure meant a certain amount of deja-vu, back to the start of the pandemic in March of 2020, when schools were initially closed for just two weeks, but ultimately not fully reopened until 18 months later.
Calvin Beall, a sophomore at Cleveland, said student absences have been getting more noticeable all week, though he was unsure whether students were sick or staying home out of an abundance of caution. The news that he'd be learning online for at least the next six school days was unwelcome, he said.
"Distance learning didn’t really work very well for me—I find that I learn a lot better in person," he says. "And I am part of the robotics team at Cleveland, and that season is about to start. We only have a limited time to build the robot and design it. Missing even one or two weeks at the beginning really affects that a lot."