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Doctors weigh in on COVID-19 and in-person school

KGW reached out to two doctors to get their take. One has two school-aged children about to start in-person learning next week. The other is a former teacher.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The new school year is either in full swing or just about to start. In recent days, KGW has heard from concerned teachers about having so many kids back for in-person learning. So we reached out to two doctors to get their take. 

Dr. Smitha Chadaga is a hospital medicine physician in the Portland metro area. She has two kids in the 3rd and 5th grade who are set to go back to in-person school next week. Dr. Erika Meyer is a pediatrician and former teacher.

Chadaga said while she is a bit nervous about sending her kids to in-person school, she’s comforted by the safety precautions their school is taking. She said all staff at her children’s parochial school are vaccinated and the safety measures reflect those in many Oregon school districts, such as mask wearing and maintaining 3 feet of physical distance to the extent possible.

Another safety measure is COVID testing. Portland Public Schools (PPS) has had testing available for symptomatic individuals since last year. But soon, schools will also have weekly screening tests available for unvaccinated students and staff. 

RELATED: Excitement and concern abound as Portland Public Schools returns to in-person learning

PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein said schools are working to register with the Oregon Health Authority to provide unvaccinated staff and students the opportunity to take a test at home once a week. They would bring the sample back to school and results would be available 24 hours later. Families would have to sign a consent form for those 17 years old and younger.

But even while there are safety measures in place, this week a number of teachers approached KGW concerned about the kids coming back for full-time, in-person learning, especially considering the contagious delta variant. A teacher sent a photo showing a crowded hallway at a Portland public high school as students made their way to their next class. Students were seen shoulder to shoulder.

Credit: PPS teacher
Photo of crowded Portland high school hallway

“Seeing the crowds in the high school, yes that's not perfect. But I hope that's a high percentage of vaccinated kids,” said Meyer after she had seen the photo.

Meyer added that she hopes students were following safety protocols, like wearing masks.

We asked Portland Public Schools about the photo. Spokesperson Karen Werstein acknowledged these types of moments do happen. But she said the crowds typically dissipate within a few minutes. Werstein also said there are often messages that air over the intercom to remind students to keep each other safe. The district will continue to address issues as they come up.

“If we try to expect it to be perfect and expect there to be zero cases, we're not really facing what the reality is,” said Meyer.

Chadaga felt similarly, especially when looking at recent national numbers.

“This week the number of pediatric cases is up 9% compared to last week, you know, in other areas of the country that have school starting earlier than us. There are tens of thousands of kids who are quarantined,” Chadaga said.

RELATED: 499 children in Oregon tested positive for COVID in one week

Meyer said she understands why teachers would feel uncomfortable — particularly those who are unvaccinated.

The message from both Meyer and Chadaga is for people to get the vaccine. They said it’s safe and effective at preventing death and hospitalization.

“Kids are relying on the parents and teachers and the adults and eligible people to be vaccinated,” said Meyer.

“And create this wall of safety around those who can’t,” Chadaga said, adding "If every parent of these kids who are under 12 are vaccinated, that keeps the kids safer. That keeps that teacher safer."

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