A adult in a mask squats down to bump elbows with a young, masked student
A teacher welcomes a Scott Elementary School student to school. Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Images for Portland Public Schools

As Oregon students cautiously return to in-person learning, school districts, teachers, and families are asking Multnomah County health officials what could trigger a reversal to remote learning.

The county isn’t sure.

“We have heard clearly from school leadership, from parents, from the public that they are looking for what is that mark where schools are no longer safe for kids to gather every day,” said Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines during a press conference Tuesday. “I think they imagine a number of cases or a percent positive or some level of transmission.”

But those metrics don’t directly translate to a clear threshold on when to close schools in order to protect public health, according to Vines.

At the same time, county health experts can’t be sure that shuttering schools will necessarily improve public health if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak. It’s possible that closing a school would not actually accomplish the county’s goal of slowing the spread of COVID in that community, due to social behavior.

“We can keep kids out of school, but kids will need childcare, they’ll get together with their friends—they’re going to go somewhere,” Vines said.

These unknowns have left the county attempting to weigh whether or not students are better off in school—a crowded, but structured learning environment where masking and ventilation is enforced—or back in the community where a lack of enforced safety precautions may contribute to the spread of COVID.

One major factor in that decision is the level of COVID transmission in schools. So far, the county has recorded just over 100 COVID cases within the more than 100,000 students enrolled in Multnomah County schools. Those 100 individuals were in close contact with well over 1,000 people, meaning any of those people who were unvaccinated needed to be quarantined for 10 days. Per county policy, fully vaccinated people are not required to quarantine after being in close contact with someone carrying the virus at school.

While those positive cases sometimes required large groups of students to quarantine, only four schools in Multnomah County were identified as having an outbreak as of September 21. Multnomah County officials declined to name the schools, but noted that in proportion to the number of positive cases, the limited outbreaks were evidence that there has been very minimal transmission of COVID within classroom settings.

“We do see that many schools are operating safely, working really hard to have these mitigation measures in place, and at this time are doing so pretty successfully,” said Lisa Ferguson, Multnomah County communicable disease manager.

At this point, Vines said, it’s more likely that a school’s suspension of in-person learning is triggered by strain on administrative capacity, similar to the case at Reynolds High School, the Troutdale school that temporarily closed last week after 901 students and staff—more than one third of the school population—had to quarantine. Administration at Reynolds, which is part of the Reynolds School District, decided to move to remote learning for two weeks because there wasn’t enough staff to serve both online and in-person students.

Portland Public Schools did not respond to the Mercury’s requests for comment on what quarantine thresholds would trigger an administrative closure of its schools.

There were only four COVID positive students at Reynolds High School, but the district’s inability to determine who the students interacted with triggered a mass quarantine, underscoring the importance of more specific contact tracing. County health officials are hoping to avoid mass quarantine events by creating and enforcing seating charts and asking more specific contract tracing questions about infected students’ behavior to whittle down the number of students that may have been exposed and need to quarantine.

“We continue to grapple with the public health threshold and I think, frankly, it boils down to family confidence in sending their children to school and feeling like schools are taking COVID seriously and managing the precautions,” Vines said. “Our return to school coincided with probably the worst timing in the pandemic.”