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Regional Interests

Portland parents, teachers want ramped up testing and distance learning options for the fall

A Portland Public Schools sign at Franklin High School in August 2019.
A Portland Public Schools sign at Franklin High School in August 2019.

Oregon’s largest school district rolled out its health and safety plan for the fall to families and staff this week.

But some said the Portland Public Schools district’s plan needs to go further, and include a more robust online learning option as the COVID-19 delta variant has caused cases across the country to increase.

“Those plans for a more normal fall were made with the best knowledge at the time, and the best intentions, but we have to be able to steer based on the realities of what this fall is looking like,” said Elizabeth Thiel, union president of the Portland Association of Teachers.

The district will require masks per a state rule and will continue to connect students and families to vaccine opportunities. But Thiel said other measures need to be stricter, like the district’s rule that three feet of physical distancing will be maintained “to the extent possible.”

“I want to make sure that means that every kid’s class will have enough space for that three feet at a minimum,” Thiel said. “And if class sizes need to be reduced in some cases, this is the time to figure that out, and make sure that there aren’t classes that are so large that three feet or more can’t be maintained.”

Thiel would also like the district to implement screen testing, which is weekly testing of staff or students who do not have symptoms. The Oregon Health Authority has offered screening tests to students and unvaccinated staff for the school year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, screening tests for COVID-19 are “recommended for unvaccinated people to identify those who are asymptomatic and do not have known, suspected, or reported exposure.”

Currently, the district’s plan only includes testing for symptomatic students and staff.

Thiel said the district should be planning ahead for what the community might need and making safe plans for school gatherings, like lunch.

“It seems like a solvable problem, but it’s a big problem to solve if we wait until the last minute,” Thiel said.

At Portland Public Schools’ back-to-school work session on Wednesday, Multnomah County Public Health’s Lisa Ferguson said the county is preparing information.

“It’s an ongoing conversation, and we will be sharing that information as soon as we have our recommendations around that,” Ferguson said.

Instead of a full comprehensive distance learning program, PPS has rolled out its Online Learning Academy. At first, the program was only open to students with health conditions. Now, it is open to all students with priority given to students “who are at increased risk for COVID-19.″

According to the district, spots in the online learning program for 2nd through 5th grades have filled up, with some students on a waitlist.

That includes Shonda Murphy’s children. Murphy said communication about the program has been lacking

“No family should have to send their children to in-person school if their children can’t be vaccinated,” Murphy said in an email to OPB.

Any student who chooses the online learning program, however, could lose their spot at PPS charter schools, dual language immersion schools, or schools with a lottery-based enrollment system.

Gabrielle Buvinger-Wild has a 2nd grader in a Portland public school with severe asthma. Her daughter’s doctor told her she’s at risk of “severe COVID.” She’s too young to be eligible for the vaccine, so Buvinger-Wild looked into enrolling her daughter in the Online Learning Academy.

But Buvinger-Wild said the district told her she’d lose her spot at Metropolitan Learning Center, a lottery school if she left.

“It seems like a real disincentive for parents; it doesn’t feel like a choice,” Buvinger-Wild said. “It seems to really penalize any at-risk kiddos.”

As a teacher at Lincoln High School, Buvinger-Wild is also concerned about teachers carrying the virus home to unvaccinated kids. She said she would like to see an in-person option, with small cohorts K-12 — meaning more teachers to help staff the smaller classrooms.

But she also sees the need for a “robust and viable” comprehensive distance-learning option for families.

“Families really need to have a viable choice, and I really think that choice should be embedded in their home school because kids have already had so much change and so much upheaval. They should at least be able to see people they know on the screen,” she said.

With less than a month until the start of school, Buvinger-Wild suggested PPS look at other districts in other states to see what’s working, as schools around the country have their first day.

She said the district should also be engaging community members and hearing from parents.

“With all the parents we have and all the teachers we have, there has to be a solution we can come up with that’s safer and meets more community need,” she said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting