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Oregonians share thoughts as school year begins

Safety protocols in place at Reynolds High School in Troutdale will include escorts to the restrooms and staying in a single classroom with a designated cohort for the school day. Districts previously committed to distance learning have had to pivot under the governor's executive order to have schools open to in-person learning.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Safety protocols in place at Reynolds High School in Troutdale will include escorts to the restrooms and staying in a single classroom with a designated cohort for the school day. Districts previously committed to distance learning have had to pivot under the governor's executive order to have schools open to in-person learning.

As students across Oregon are beginning classes, many are returning to campuses with new rules and regulations for COVID-19. We talk with students, parents and teachers about their concerns for the upcoming school year.

Tania Neubauer is a parent in Portland Public Schools. Jordan Gerdes is a sixth grade teacher in Deschutes County. And Marley Rose Zimtbaum is a junior at Gladstone High School. Also, on the first day of classes for Portland Public Schools, we hear from Deputy Superintendent Shawn Bird about the protocols in place to protect kids in the classroom from COVID-19, and the options available for online instruction.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, it is the first day of school for the largest district in Oregon. Over 40,000 students are going back to Portland Public Schools. Unlike last Fall, going back to school will actually mean going inside school buildings because at PPS, like in the rest of the state, the hope is to have in-person schooling for the whole year. That is, if the Delta variant doesn’t force massive quarantines or a return to comprehensive distance learning. Shawn Bird joins me to talk about the start of the school year during the Delta driven surge. He is the Deputy Superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Right now he is at Leodis McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland. Shawn Bird, Welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Shawn Bird: Thank you, good afternoon.

Miller: Good afternoon to you. So, OHSU’s Chief Medical Officer said last week that unvaccinated people should stay home. What does that mean for kindergarteners through, say sixth graders, people under the age of 12 who are too young to be vaccinated?

Bird: Right. So because of our student population that cannot be vaccinated, we have put into place many layers of mitigation.

So we are, all of our students and staff are wearing masks. We are distancing our students. We’re doing things like eating lunch and breakfast outdoors, so that when students don’t have a mask on, they’re not right next to you, they’re not close to each other. So we agree that there’s several layers of mitigation that together will help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. And we also know that children need to be in school and I’ve been to several schools today, elementary schools, the kids are happy and it’s great to see them back.

Miller: How will social distancing - and my understanding is that’s three feet, not six, and mask enforcement work. Who’s going to be enforcing that? And how?

Bird: So just like at the beginning of every school year, our teachers teach routines to their children, especially elementary children. I’ve been in several elementary schools today and students are used to wearing them because they’ve been wearing them for so long. Teachers are going to work with students to make sure that they’re wearing masks. Really it seems very natural to students today. I haven’t really seen anybody without their masks on properly, but we do have at our schools, we are teaching to put on the mask correctly and how to take it off to eat, those kinds of things.

Miller: What are your internal models or projections for the percentage of students in Portland Public Schools who are going to get COVID this year? Shawn Bird, are you still there? That’s disappointing. We’re going to see what’s happening with Shawn Bird’s. cellphone. Shawn Bird; Deputy Superintendent for Portland Public Schools and we’re going see if we can get another number that will work. But in the meantime, we do have other people on the line with us. Jordan Gerdes is with us. He is a sixth grade Teacher in Deschutes County. Jordan Gerdes. Can you hear me?

Jordan Gerdes: I can.

Miller: Great. Now. You asked us before the show To not mention where you teach, simply that you are a 6th grade teacher in Deschutes County. Why was that important to you?

Gerdes: For a couple of reasons. I mean one, I’m obviously representing my own opinions and not my school and not my District, so I don’t want to be seen as that voice for either of those. Then two, we have, our area is kind of blowing up right now with differences of opinions on COVID, and we’re seeing a lot of protests and demonstrations and a lot of rumblings of parents possibly demonstrating outside of schools and stuff like that. And I really don’t want my students or my staff or anybody else here to have to take part in any of that.

Miller: How are you thinking about the coming year?

Gerdes: It’s complicated. My school specifically is taking it very seriously. So I feel safe here, but we also are in a unique position where we serve a lot of Deschutes County as well. So we have students that siblings or parents might be at other schools. There’s a lot of rumblings of other schools not taking it as seriously. So, anything that happens around us can intimately affect our school population as well.

Miller: When you say rumblings of people not taking it as seriously in other schools, what does that mean? In particular?

Gerdes: We have a group of teachers and people around the area that we’ve gotten together to affect kind of local community change. Just hearing from other teachers, hearing from other friends at other schools that you know, parents might protest or people are going to show up without masks on the first day and keep coming back until they’re allowed entry. Stuff like that we’ve heard again, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s something that we’re concerned about.

Miller: My understanding is that someone in your household is immuno-compromised. How does that affect your thinking about you being back in school?

Gerdes: It was something that I really kind of struggled with, especially last year as we were looking to come back right around Spring Break time. Luckily I got vaccinated, my wife was able to get vaccinated as well. So it’s something that I think at any other school, I might not be as comfortable with it. We have a pretty good population here and a pretty decent handle on these precautions. So it’s something that is at the back of my mind every single day, but it’s also something that I love what I do, I love where I work and I know that they’re taking this seriously.

Miller: What are your hopes for the year? And my recollection is that the school starts, technically next week for you?

Gerdes: Yeah, it does.

Miller: So what are your hopes for the year?

Gerdes: I mean, honestly, my hopes were to make it through the school year without any significant interruptions. We have eighth graders this year that have not had a full year of school in class since the sixth grade year.

Miller: Hmm.

Gerdes: So, I want to make it through without interruptions. I want to make it through with the student population, the staff population staying healthy. I’d like it to be a normal school here, is my hope.

Miller: Yeah, that’s, I think everybody’s hope. Jordan Gerdes, thanks very much for joining us.

Gerdes: Of course. Thank you.

Jordan Gerdes is a sixth grade Teacher in Deschutes County. I think we do have Shawn Bird, Deputy Superintendent of Portland Public Schools back on the line. Shawn Bird. Can you hear me?

Bird: I can. Sorry about that.

Miller: No problem. It happens. So let me go back to the question I asked, I’m not sure you heard the question. I’m curious what your internal models at Portland Public Schools, what they are right now for the percentage of students who you estimate are going to get COVID this year?

Bird: So we don’t have any projections about how many students would get it, but we do know that we have things in place to mitigate the transmission of the spread of the virus in our schools. And we also have experience from the spring and the summer where we had students in schools and we have these multiple layers of mitigations in place. So, we’re going to continue to follow the advice of a Health and Safety Panel which includes two positions to make sure that we have a safe environment for our students.

Miller: Those models were relatively successful pre-Delta. But as we know, Delta is just, it’s a different virus in significant ways, in terms of transmission. I’m curious why there aren’t estimates for what transmission is actually going to be like this year. Even with those, you know, different kinds of barriers or preventative measures in place.

Bird: Yes. So we do work with our Health and Safety Panel and we have consulted with, at certain times, and keep in contact with the Oregon Health Authorities. We don’t run, we haven’t run specific models for what that might look like. We’re following closely what’s happening in the State and Multnomah County, and what we are doing though is making sure that we have every mitigation player in place and we are ready when students that are eligible to be vaccinated. We’re ready to set up clinics and we have had clinics all throughout the summer to facilitate the vaccination in our communities because we know that’s the way to get out of this pandemic is through vaccination as well as multiple mitigation layers.

Miller: The District announced last week that parents will be able to opt their kids into weekly asymptomatic testing. Can you explain how that’s going to work?

Bird: That’s right. So we’re still learning more details about that. OHSU is our partner in that, and basically it is anybody in the District, any parent can opt into that for their children. The kits will be sent home once a week with their child, using saliva. They bring the sample back to school and a courier picks it up, processes that and then we get the results back. So that’ll be done weekly for anybody that wishes to opt in for our students.

Miller: When you say anybody, so I mean, are there enough resources that if 40,000, the parents of 40,000 kids say I want my kid to get tested, meaning everybody in the system, there’s enough for that?

Bird: We’re certainly ramping up to that right now. The program is starting. We’re piloting it right now to make sure, you know, the systems are in place. Then over the next several weeks we’ll be able to ramp up. The vendor has the supplies that we need.

Miller: Is this the PCR Test that provides a more accurate picture for whether or not people have COVID?

Bird: It’s a saliva based test, we use the PCR Test for symptomatic testing and our student spaces in schools. This is a test recommended by Health Authorities. So we rely on their judgment about the efficacy of the test.

Miller: If a school or anybody learns that a child or someone in their household has either been exposed or did actually test positive for COVID, what is the protocol at that point?

Bird: So if it happens, if a student is exhibiting symptoms at a school, they go to the nurse and we do a test at that point and then we have, there’s a protocol for exposure, we work with Multnomah Educational Service District that’s who provides their nurses. And there’s a protocol for determining close contact. We do some interviews, there’s nurses that are involved and then we notify people that there’s been close contact, we notify the student and the student’s family, the students that were involved in that case.

Miller: What is your working definition right now, your actual definition for close contact in terms of proximity of the two students and duration of the time they were together?

Bird: So in a classroom, if everyone’s masked appropriately, then it’s within three feet of distance and a significant exposure is 15 minutes or greater. So if students are just passing one another in the hallway that would not count significant exposure. But if they were sitting close to each other in a classroom for more than 15 minutes, that would count as significant. So we have lots of things in place, seating charts and those kind of things so we can contact-trace and that’s just in process.

Miller: In other words, it may not be everybody in the class. It’s just people who are a certain distance away?

Bird: That’s right. And that’s why we are eating outdoors, both breakfast and lunch because we know the virus is transmitted in droplets. So when students don’t have a mask on, which is when they’re eating and drinking, we want them to be spread out even more and outside. So it’s safer for them to do that. And I hope this will help us reduce the transmission level.

Miller: But if I understand this correctly, if the idea is that students aren’t supposed to be less than 3 feet away, it seems like if you get a positive test for one student, then if everyone is following the rules, there would be no close contacts.

Bird: Yeah, I mean, we obviously leave that up to, we have procedures that we follow for contact-tracing…(garbling)

Miller: Shawn, I don’t know if you moved to a different place, but all of a sudden your cell phone connection started getting a little bit worse. So I don’t know if you can move closer to a window or someplace and I’ll take my time as I ask this next question. What is the plan for students who do have to stay home to quarantine, what kind of access to education will they have?

Bird: So we have experience with students being in distance learning last year. We have resources that are already curated and together we have a website that students can go to to get their material. Teachers can also post their lessons online using the platforms that we’ve used for the last year. So we have a system for when students need to quarantine, provided that they’re feeling well, they can just as if they were out sick for any other reason they can access their education and we’ll have structures in place so they can still check in with the teacher to make sure they’re not falling behind while they’re out.

Miller: Parents received emails, robot calls and text messages from the District last week about the extended deadline for applying to the PPS Online Learning Academy. Where does enrollment stand for this online only option right now?

Bird: Yeah. So we welcomed 698 students to that Online Learning Academy, today, and we have about 625 that are on our wait list. So we’ve been adapting with the pandemic. So as the demand for that has ramped up, we opened that application several times to allow people to apply and right now we are we open with 698, we’re continuing to staff that up to meet the demand that we have and we’ll be letting will be notifying parents when we are able to accept more students.

Miller: The guidelines have been that families who wanted to apply to this Online Learning Academy, the Online-only option, have been required to commit to a full semester of online classes. Do you anticipate any changes to that policy to give families more flexibility to go back and forth between online and in-person?

Bird: No, we really need people to remain in that program for a semester because they use a different platform, and we purchased the curriculum for that Online specific curriculum. So they would need to stay in that curriculum so they have a seamless transition when they do go back to school, but it would require them to remain for a semester. Also we’re moving staff to the Online Academy and we can’t move staff back and forth overnight obviously. So it does take some time for us to plan, to be able to shift staff from Online to back to the Brick and Mortar school.

Miller: But just to be clear, some of those families may not find out they got in until the coming days, until the semester is actually started?

Bird: That’s right. So we got the first group that we are in. And then we had another round of requests. And so we have to hire teachers, we have to move some teachers from Brick and Mortar to Online school. That just takes a couple of days to do that. Then we have to get some training for those teachers. So we’ll be notifying, they’re on the wait list now. We’ve sent a message to all of those families saying you’re on the wait list, please attend your neighborhood school currently and we will let you know if we’re able to get you off of the waitlist.

Miller: Shawn Bird, thanks very much.

Bird: Thank you. Have a great day. Happy first day of school.

Miller: You, too, Shawn Bird, Deputy Superintendent for Portland Public schools. He talked to us from Leodis McDaniel High School. We’re going to get a few more perspectives on this first day, or first day, yesterday, last week or coming in the coming week. Right now, from a student and a parent, Marley Rose Zimtbaum just started her junior year at Gladstone High School. We called her up earlier this morning when she said she had a free period. Her first day of school was yesterday. I asked her what it was like.

Rose Zimtbaum: I think it went really well. COVID-wise people weren’t really distanced or anything and some kids didn’t have their masks over their nose, but otherwise people did really well with masks.

Miller: When people didn’t socially distance, and it’s, you have to be what, three ft apart, is that the rule you’ve been given?

Rose Zimtbaum: Yes.

Miller: So when they weren’t doing that or if they weren’t wearing their mask properly, which is not that different from not wearing a mask,...

Rose Zimtbaum: Yeah.

Miller: What did teachers or staff, or maybe even fellow students say?

Rose Zimtbaum: No one said anything really. A few teachers who seemed very COVID cautious, they were stressing to use hand sanitizer, stuff like that. They didn’t say anything to the kids with their masks, below their nose. I wanted to say something, but it was in the middle of class so I couldn’t really interrupt.

Miller: Would you have felt comfortable saying hey, fellow students, in a sense policing them to be safe, for yourself and others?

Rose Zimtbaum: I want to feel comfortable. I think I would say even if I wasn’t comfortable, saying it, because it’s, it doesn’t matter if I’m comfortable, it’s for the safety of people.

Miller: You spoke out back in January at a School Board Meeting, urging school leaders to continue with Comprehensive Distance Learning instead of a hybrid model. But here we are now in the next school year, in a worst time in terms of this Delta driven surge, going into fully in-person classes overall. How do you feel about this school year?

Rose Zimtbaum: I think they should have had a CDL option open for students because they only have in- person only, or PPL, which is basically all online, no Zoom, students handle their own work and everything. I couldn’t have the advanced classes that I’m taking if I took PPL, which would be safer for my family. So that’s why I chose in person learning. I feel like it would have been better if we stayed in CDL or if we at least urge people to keep wearing their mask and keep reminding them to wear their mask properly.

Miller: In other words, it seems like from your perspective, first of all, if you wanted the educational opportunities that would be available to you, it doesn’t really seem like you had a choice, you had to go in, but you’re saying if you were going to go in, you wish people were being made to follow the rules more.

Rose Zimtbaum: Yes, exactly.

Miller: How much are students talking about this right now, talking about Delta and I should know that you’re in high school. So you and your fellow students can get vaccinated. That’s not the case for people below the age of 12 in elementary schools and some middle school students. How much fear do you hear about either vaccinated students getting COVID, nevertheless, breakthrough cases, or from unvaccinated students?

Rose Zimtbaum: Unvaccinated students, I haven’t heard any fear for them, from them really. Most unvaccinated people I know, they’re the ones who aren’t wearing their masks properly because they don’t think it’s a big deal. From my vaccinated friends, they have voiced their concern and their annoyance about students not wearing masks properly and I just, it’s like a hard situation to deal with.

Miller: Is it the case now where for the most part students, you know, the vaccination status of the people around you, is that the kind of thing that people know or are there students walking around and you just have no idea?

Rose Zimtbaum: I assume with some people to be honest most of my friends, tell me if they’re vaccinated or not. If I ask someone if they’re vaccinated, they’ll be honest and say, oh I am or, I’m not.

Miller: What are your hopes for this year? We’ve been talking about your concerns?

Rose Zimtbaum: I hope whether this year is all in person or turns into another crazy online year, I hope that I can still do well along with my other students. I hope we can still do well in classes and still try to learn because I know it’s been hard for a lot of people to be online and try and absorb the information they’re getting thrown at. So I just hope it’s a safe and what’s the word, successful year for us?

Miller: Well, I’m hoping that as well for you. Thanks so much for giving us your time. I’ll let you get back to school. Thank you. That was Marley Rosezipbaum who just started her junior year at Gladstone High School. We end our quartet of conversations about the beginning of the school year with a parent. Tania Neubauer has a daughter in Portland Public Schools. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Tania Neubauer: Thank you so much.

Miller: I’m curious what stood out to you in what you heard from the Deputy Superintendent of Portland Public Schools?

Neubauer: I think the most striking thing, I loved that you asked him what their projection was for how many kids are going to get COVID? And that’s crazy to me that there’s no model, obviously like who the School District isn’t the one who’s going model, but his ... and, how many would have COVID...

Miller: Tania Neubauer, probably, as no surprise to our audience, but we’re having problems. You seem to be cutting in and out. I don’t know if there’s something you can do as we talk, but if I heard you correctly, you were surprised and disappointed that the District doesn’t have some estimate on their own of the number of students who are likely to get COVID. But what do you wish the District or the State had done differently for the start of this year?

Neubauer: I think they should have had much stricter rules on what social distance should look like, in any other, … can you hear me better now?

Miller: I can, yes. Thank you.

Neubauer: Okay, great. In any other space besides a school, close contact is six feet or, within six feet for more than 15 minutes, masked or unmasked, and even that has not been updated for the Delta variant, that’s the old guideline. For some reason in schools, for some reason that I’ve never been able to understand, close contact is described as closer than three feet without a mask. If it’s three feet or greater with a mask, it’s no contact, and therefore, as I understand it, we, as parents, are not going to be notified, if there’s a positive case.

Miller: One of the things that I’ve heard over the last year about this distance question, is that in larger districts like Portland Public Schools, it would be potentially impossible to have everybody go back to school all the time if the distance requirement were six feet, and for many students and their parents, for a variety of reasons, distance learning really didn’t work. So while the health concerns are vitally important for a lot of families, being in person is also hugely important. How do you think about the tension between those two, it’s fair to say competing priorities?

Neubauer: Here’s my question, You had a year and a half, two of Distance Learning to be thinking this through. There’s a lot of other options to make schools safer, right? Like most, especially, I feel like kids who were in kindergarten, first grade and kids with various Special Needs, they had the hardest time with Distance Learning. They should have been working from the start to figure out safe ways for those kids to be in the classroom, you know, starting April 2020, and that could include moving classrooms outdoors. I was able to put my daughter in a two day a week outdoor Home School Elective through a place that does Electives for Home Schoolers, but it was incredible for her, was so great for her. That was safe. That would have a minimal cost, do something like that at PPS at most schools to do it outdoors. That just wasn’t on the table, even though it would have been incredibly…[Fades]

Miller: Tania Neubauer, I’m afraid to say we have to let you go. It seems like we may be losing your connection again, but that’s Tania Neubauer, thank you so much for joining us. Tania Bauer is a parent in Portland Public Schools.

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