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Questions answered: Portland Public Schools' online option, vaccines and COVID testing at schools

Answering parent questions about going back to class this fall in the Portland Public School District. The first day is Sept. 1

PORTLAND, Ore. — Update 8/13: PPS said everyone who was on the Online Learning Academy waitlist for grades 2-5 have gotten in. A new waitlist will be established if more people sign up. 

The delta variant has a lot of parents unsure if they want to send their kids to school for in-person learning this fall. Below are some of the common questions KGW is hearing from parents about this upcoming school year. 

What are the online learning options?

Shonda Murphy is a parent to two eight-year-old boys, Jack and Max. They’re getting ready to enter the third grade in the Portland Public School (PPS) District when school starts on Sept. 1.

“I was fully prepared to send them back to school until the delta variant has become more relevant,” said Murphy.

But with school starting in less than a month, she’s anxious and unsure if her boys will get the option to attend class online. Murphy said she isn’t happy with the district’s communication with parents about the online learning option.

RELATED: Oregon to require face masks for students K-12

Murphy said she only received two e-mails about the Online Learning Academy, Portland Public’s remote learning program.

“The first e-mail stated that it was for families that had an underlying medical condition,” Murphy said.

So, she didn’t apply. Murphy said a second e-mail opened up the opportunity to everyone, but she didn’t see it because her family was out of town.

Now her boys are stuck on a waitlist.

“Not every family will get a spot, the way PPS has it set up today,” said Murphy.

“I’m not willing to gamble with my children’s health.”

KGW asked PPS officials if there are plans to make online school available to any family, especially considering kids 12 and younger still can’t get the vaccine.

RELATED: Yes, there’s a rise in child COVID-19 cases but it’s not yet known if the delta variant is more dangerous for kids

PPS spokesperson, Karen Werstein, said details about the Online Learning Academy were discussed in parent information sessions, board meetings and on the website. PPS currently has openings for the Online Learning Academy, but grades 2-5 have a waitlist. A statement said in part, “We are taking applications for anyone interested in the program but giving priority to those with health-related concerns.” Weinstein said there is still room in grades 6-12.

At this point, several other districts including Vancouver Public Schools, Tigard-Tualatin and Beaverton are offering a remote learning option for any family interested with no waitlist.

Murphy hopes she won’t have to take her boys elsewhere for school.

“We are hoping it doesn’t come down to that. We really, really like our home school,” said Murphy.

“My hope [is] that PPS will step up and open up spots for every family that needs a spot online.”

Will vaccines be mandatory?

Murphy had other concerns too. She wondered if vaccines will be mandatory for teachers and staff working with young kids who can’t get the vaccine.

In an e-mail, Werstein said, “It is not currently mandatory for teachers to get the COVID vaccine although PPS highly encourages all teachers, all staff and everyone in the community, to get vaccinated. We do know that all of our educators and employees have had access to the vaccine and we continue to offer opportunities in the community and on our campuses for folks to be vaccinated. We eagerly await these safe, effective vaccines being made available to younger students.”

During a school board meeting on Tuesday, PPS Chief of Staff, Jonathan Garcia said for students it could potentially be a two-year process for the state to approve a mandate of COVID-19 vaccines.

“In terms of staff, we are in conversations with our labor partners in particular about some of those next steps,” said Garcia.

Will there be weekly testing of unvaccinated students and staff?

“Last year we provided testing for symptomatic students and staff. This year in partnership with the Oregon Health Authority, we plan to offer free COVID-19 screen testing to all PPS students and staff. Screening testing is for individuals without symptoms or exposure to COVID-19,” said Werstein.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Dr. Shawn Bird, PPS Chief of Schools, said the district is working with the Oregon Health Authority and labor partners to implement a district-wide screen testing for unvaccinated students and staff.

“This program is provided by the OHA and will include free at-home weekly screening testing by mail to any unvaccinated public K-12 staff member including volunteers. While vaccination status will not be verified at this time, all staff will be welcome to enroll and will receive instructions very shortly to do so,” said Bird.

When it comes to testing unvaccinated students, Bird said the district is working on the details.

“The details and nuances of operationalizing these testing protocols are complex and being worked out currently. But we are committed to offering screening testing as part of our mitigation efforts to our students and more information will be rolled out to our schools in the coming days and weeks.”