Two Portland high schools – Cleveland and McDaniel – shut their doors Friday and will switch to distance learning for next week amid surging COVID-19 cases and persistent staffing challenges that could lead to additional closures throughout the district.
Portland Public Schools officials did little to allay questions and concerns during an afternoon news conference, detailing the uncertainty district leaders face as conditions at individual schools shift hour-to-hour.
“Our goal is to keep our school buildings open and to maintain in-person instruction as much as possible,” said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. “We consider the closure of our schools to in-person learning and activities to be a measure of last resort.”
Guerrero and other officials conceded such measures could come with little warning, including when a surge of teachers phone in late in the evening to request subs because they plan to be absent the next day.
Portland Public Schools notified parents and school staffers of Friday’s high school closures via email late Thursday, citing a “significant increase” in COVID-19 infections among staff and students. Together, the two schools serve more than 3,000 students.
“Where we cannot offer sufficient staffing to continue on-site instruction in a safe environment, we will have to implement temporary distance learning until we can reopen,” Margaret Calvert, the regional superintendent who oversees high schools, said in a statement.
However, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard did not show large numbers of teachers isolating due to an infection or on quarantine due to an exposure as of Friday afternoon.
It appeared the district moved to distance learning in those schools after learning a large number of teachers, many of whom do not appear to have COVID-19, indicated they would be absent on Friday.
During the news conference, Portland schools officials attributed the discrepancy to a lag in data reporting caused by the dramatic rise in coronavirus, which reached a record 2,380 reported infections Friday in Multnomah County.
But they acknowledged they do not ask teachers to detail precisely why they will be absent and do not know whether COVID-19, the flu or other factors drove individual educators’ decisions.
At Cleveland, 32 of the school’s roughly 85 teachers, or nearly 40%, indicated by Thursday evening they would be absent Friday, and the district only found 19 substitutes to fill in for them, district officials said.
At McDaniel, 22 of the roughly 65 teachers, or about 35%, reported they would be absent, and district officials couldn’t secure subs for eight of them, they said.
The move to distance learning by the two high schools came days after a breakdown in union negotiations with the district to lighten teachers’ workloads.
In an email to teachers and other union members on Sunday, union leaders wrote, “We can only recommend that educators set personal boundaries which allow them to persevere until conditions improve. We must all set realistic expectations of ourselves, and support our colleagues in doing the same. It is OK to say, ‘This is all I can do’ and let that be enough.”
Since school resumed after the winter break, with the highly contagious omicron variant circulating in Oregon, a total of 219 staff have had to quarantine or isolate, according to the district’s COVID-19 data dashboard, including 12 from Cleveland and five from McDaniel.
Renard Adams, chief of research assessment and accountability, said the district’s dashboard is taking up to 48 hours to reflect some new positive coronavirus cases or instances of people required to quarantine among the omicron-fueled surge.
Large numbers of teacher absences were not solely at the two high schools. As of Thursday night, 431 school district staff eligible for substitutes had said they would be absent Friday, a spokesperson said. The district is short at least 175 substitute teachers, the spokesperson said.
“I don’t think anybody in the broader community will be surprised that unless the conditions improve and we can guarantee consistency in staffing,” Guerrero said, “there may be additional school communities where we transition temporarily to distance learning.”
According to the district, its COVID-19 tracking site, which is populated by self-reports of staff and students isolated or quarantined due to coronavirus, is updated three times a day. The district requires that all staff report a positive COVID-19 test result or if they are quarantined due to exposure, the statement said.
At Cleveland and McDaniel, the staff shortage-induced closure prompted the district to postpone extracurricular activities. It has offered to provide students pick-up meals.
A Cleveland High teacher said the switch to online instruction is viewed by most faculty members as best for students, given what the teacher said was high student absenteeism during all four school days since winter break. The teacher asked not to be named to protect his students’ and his own comfort levels with disclosure.
Indeed, student absenteeism at the two high schools was extraordinarily high this week, according to district officials. Cleveland’s daily absentee rate escalated from 19% on Monday to 28% on Thursday, spokesperson Ariane Le Chevallier said. At McDaniel, the absentee rate started high out of the gate Monday, at 25%, and rose slightly, to 28%, by Thursday, she said.
The unnamed teacher said most of his classes experienced absentee rates of 25% to 30%, due to both students with positive COVID cases or potential exposures who need to quarantine for extended periods and students whose families feel unsafe sending them to school amid omicron. With finals only 2½ weeks away, he said, students who had to miss days and weeks of instruction were feeling high stress levels, he said.
Cleveland teachers learned of Friday’s closure and next week’s virtual learning by email Thursday evening, he said. During a Friday morning virtual faculty meeting, the sense of the faculty was “the most equitable thing to do is to be able to instruction online,” he said.
The district includes 79 other schools that could also face staffing challenges as the current COVID-19 surge continues. Portland Public Schools said it will decide whether to close a school based on numerous data points, including how many workers and staff test positive or are in quarantine and how many vacancies there are without a substitute.
Education editor Betsy Hammond contributed to this report.
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