A group of young children wearing masks in a school hallway, looking up at a teacher
Students at Rigler Elementary on the first day of school. Portland Public Schools

In theory, Portland Public Schools’ (PPS) many precautions against COVID-19 should provide several layers of protection against virus transmission. But in practice, students and staff returning to school after a year away say that mask wearing is inconsistent, hallways are crowded, and testing requirements are lagging behind.

“I’m here to tell you that our hallways and classrooms are packed in like sardines,” said Grant High School student Danny Cage during a PPS school board meeting Tuesday. “PPS is not currently following its guidelines.”

A COVID safety agreement between the district and teacher’s union mandates mask wearing, social distancing, regular testing for symptomatic students and staff, and quarantine protocols for students and staff who come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID. Despite these measures, 175 PPS students and staff have tested positive for COVID since the school year began on September 1, and nearly 700—or about one percent of the district’s population—have been quarantined due to exposure.

The district’s guidelines are in line with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, which call for three feet between students when possible.

While some PPS buildings do have large enough classrooms to accommodate the three-foot rule, some schools with large class sizes strained available classroom space even before the pandemic. In addition, high school enrollment increased eight percent this year due to a large incoming class. Several high school students commented on their inability to maintain a three-foot distance from other students when in class or in passing in the hallways between classes.

“Every time I walk into a class, I am never three feet away from someone,” said high schooler Lucy Michaud during the board meeting. Michaud said the language in the safety agreement calling for 3 feet “when possible” gives the district “all the leeway in the world” to not enforce distancing.

Michaud said she is worried about contracting COVID in school and bringing it home to her asthmatic mom.

“I cannot convey to you the amount of dread I have about going to school and hurting someone I love,” Michaud told the board. “I don’t know how I’m choosing between the life of people I love and getting a decent education.”

For Elizabeth Thiel, president of the PPS teachers union Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), schools’ inability to accommodate for the three foot distance in classrooms is indicative of a long-term disinvestment in the education system, one that has limited teachers and increased class sizes for decades. According to data from The Oregonian, the average teacher to student ratio in PPS is one to 19, higher than the national average of one to 16.

“If our class sizes were smaller, we wouldn't be having this crisis in the same way we are right now,” Thiel said.

PPS administrators have a variety of other tools to prevent potential outbreaks in schools, like furnishing cramped classrooms with additional air filters that test the air flow of the room. The PPS school board is also considering a vaccine mandate for all eligible students, a move that the union strongly supports.

“That would not solve the problem for our kids under 12, but it would be a huge piece of the solution for our high schools and for most students in our middle schools,” Thiel said.

Masked high schoolers walk up the stairs in school. There is less than three feet between several students
Students at Leodis V. McDaniel High School on the first day of school. Portland Public Schools

All PPS staff must be vaccinated or be subject to regular COVID testing, per a district mandate. According to PPS, 76 percent of PPS staff have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

The district has also promised testing for asymptomatic students, in addition to the onsite diagnostic testing for symptomatic students and staff provided in tandem with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and Multnomah Education Service District (MESD). Yet, according to PPS representatives, these tests won’t be widely available as promised for another six weeks due to “factors outside of the district’s control.”

“It is really frustrating that [testing] was promised as a support that would be there, and then schools were told to open fully and those supports don't exist for six weeks,” Thiel said.

Parents and teachers have also expressed frustration about how long it takes for the district to diagnose a COVID case and notify people who may have come into contact with the person. An agreement between the teacher’s union and PPS requires that the district notifies students and staff who may have come into contact with a COVID positive person at school within 24 hours of learning about the case, but that window has been missed several times already. The contact tracing is performed by MESD, who cite “capacity issues'' for the delay in notification. An MESD spokesperson confirmed that health services staff, like school nurses, are being hired to assist with contract tracing and speed up the process.

COVID outbreaks have already tested the ability of PPS to adapt to in-person learning.

Just one week into the school year, 40 students at Duniway Elementary had to quarantine after being exposed to a student infected with COVID on a school bus. Both the district and county were unable to determine who was within 3 feet of the infected student, so the full bus of kids had to stay home for the required 10-day quarantine.

Parents of quarantined students say they haven’t been instructed on how to keep their kid up to speed on schoolwork while staying home. One parent from Hayhurst Elementary School said that his child was not given instructions after having to quarantine following close contact with a COVID positive student.

“I was told ‘He’s not going to miss much, so don’t worry about it,’” Jeff Oswald said during the board meeting. “No one wants to hear that from an educator. I’ll be honest, that pissed me off.”

While the district’s major focus was getting students back to in-person learning this school year, PPS also decided to offer continued virtual classes taught by dedicated online instructors for families who did not want to return their child to in-person schooling. Quarantined students can’t join those courses while they’re at home because the virtual classes may be at a different point in the curriculum than the student’s in-person class. That, and the online classes are already at full capacity.

Because interest in virtual learning was low before the school year began, PPS capped the enrollment at around 650 students. Now, after the Delta variant fueled a record-breaking surge in COVID cases in August and students risk being sent home for 10 days with minimal education materials, interest in the online academy has doubled. As of September 14, 648 students are on the waiting list and the district is onboarding teachers to offer more classes.

As of Friday, PPS does not have a specific threshold of cases or quarantined students that would trigger a closure of schools and a return to virtual learning. According to a PPS spokesperson, the district will follow the Multnomah County Health Department’s recommendation on whether or not in-person learning is still viable. County health officials are evaluating schools on a case-by-case basis and do not have specific metrics that would trigger school closures, according to a county spokesperson.

“There is no simple metric by which we would recommend suspending in-person learning,” wrote Multnomah County Health Department spokesperson Kate Yeiser in an email to the Mercury. “We are monitoring districts carefully, working with superintendents and the Multnomah Education Service District and will be learning as we go.”

Earlier this week, Reynolds High School in Troutdale closed and temporarily transitioned back to online learning after four COVID cases forced 900 students and staff—about one-third of the school’s population—to quarantine. While the school also takes health guidance from the Multnomah County Health Department, the Reynolds School District did not consult the county prior to closing the high school and returning to virtual learning. The school is set to reopen on September 27.

Thiel says maintaining a stable classroom environment while students and teachers are placed in and out of quarantine due to exposure is an unprecedented challenge.

“I think the key to all of this is getting the spread of COVID way down in our communities,” Thiel said. “I'm hopeful that things like a vaccine requirement for students who are eligible, everybody in the community getting vaccinated who's eligible, and everything we're doing in schools to try to minimize the spread of the virus will be a huge part of minimizing those disruptions. But, I think this is gonna be a really tough school year.”