Portland Public Schools (PPS) is preparing for more schools to temporarily return to remote learning as Oregon’s surge in COVID-19 cases compounds the district’s existing staff shortages.
During a press conference Friday, PPS leaders laid the groundwork for a possible wave of schools being forced to return to remote learning. The district has already determined that Cleveland and McDaniel High Schools must return to remote learning for at least one week starting Monday due to the number of staff absentees. According to Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, there are several other schools in the district that PPS is monitoring and may need to transition to remote learning in the coming days. PPS staff declined to share the names of which schools were at risk of closing.
To monitor the safety and feasibility of in-person learning, PPS says it will evaluate data on the number of COVID-positive staff, students and staff in quarantine due to exposure, the number of staff vacancies that cannot be covered by substitutes, as well as regional public health metrics several times per day. If a school is found to have too many COVID cases, not enough staff, or other concerning conditions, PPS will move the school online for at least one week. The full day following the announcement will be a transition day during which teachers can plan and students can access learning materials online on Canvas or SeeSaw—the district’s online learning portals.
All extracurricular activities, including sports, will be paused during temporary remote learning. Any temporarily closed schools will still offer breakfast and lunch to students for pickup.
“Our goal is to keep our school buildings open and to maintain in-person instruction as much as possible… as long as we can do so safely,” Guerrero said. “We consider the closure of our schools to in-person learning and activities to be a measure of last resort.”
The district will offer a test-to-return program to school communities that are moved online. According to PPS Chief Academic Officer Cheryl Proctor, PPS will send at-home COVID testing kits to students and staff and collect the results. The district will then factor the school community’s test results, availability of substitute teachers, and other data to inform whether or not the school will be able to return to in-person learning after a week online, or if remote learning must be extended. PPS already offers similar COVID testing to students and staff who are symptomatic and unvaccinated students who have been exposed to COVID while at school.
PPS does not have a set timeline of when parents would be notified of an in-person school closure or reopening. Cleveland and McDaniel High School communities were notified Thursday at 9:30 pm that in-person classes were canceled Friday.
“Because of how dynamic the situation is and how it shifts from hour-to-hour throughout the day, it’s really hard to call for any one particular school what that decision would be, but it would always be grounded in the data and grounded on the advice of our health advisors,” Proctor said.
Guerrero said that PPS is sympathetic to parents who need to plan childcare or coordinate their schedules to accommodate a return to remote learning, but because requests for substitutes are changing hour-by-hour, a staffing issue might not be revealed until “the 11th hour.”
PPS has struggled all school year with staffing shortages. As of January 7, 435 substitution requests have been submitted. PPS has been able to fill 263 of the requests, while the remaining 172 were filled with other licensed educators like central office staff. The district temporarily lowered its educator licensing requirements in 2021 in an effort to battle its staffing shortage, but the program has not filled the need. So far, PPS has hired 56 emergency license substitutes and 174 people are in some phase of the hiring process.
As of January 7, 754 students were isolated due to COVID. According to PPS, 526 students were quarantined due to exposure outside of school and 5 students were quarantined due to an exposure in school.