PORTLAND, Ore. — For many students in Portland, next week means back to school. While there is excitement around the prospect of going back to in-person learning, there’s also apprehension.
Steffanie Audel is an elementary school librarian in the Portland Public School District (PPS). She is glad about the district’s mandate that all employees must get the vaccine. But she doesn’t think that’s enough. Audel is hoping the district considers starting the year remotely or in a hybrid model.
“I'm actually vaccinated. I'm not concerned about myself. I'm concerned about these younger children, and I feel like the delta variant is spreading quickly,” said Audel.
Right now, children younger than 12 can’t get the vaccine. Audel said it’s also impossible to know which families are and aren’t vaccinated. Still, she knows in-person learning is important for kids’ social and emotional health as well. She understands the push to get kids back into the classroom.
“I get it. Kids love to be together. They love to be with their teachers. We love to be with them," Audel said. "I do understand that, but unfortunately I think this is a bigger issue. We're talking about the health of these students."
In addition, Audel said she’s worried about the number of kids in a classroom.
“We're just trying to do the best we can, but we're putting kids in classes that have 25 to 32 kids in elementary. That's way too many children and the spaces are very small," said Audel. "So I guess if the district could figure out a way to have less kids, even if we all went back, maybe that would be more helpful."
Karen Werstein with PPS said students will be 3 feet apart in all classrooms, which follows state guidance. Werstein said if 3 feet of distance cannot be maintained, there are other actions that can be taken such as removing or rearranging furniture, or switching to a different classroom.
Meantime in Beaverton, city councilor Nadia Hasan wrote a letter to the Beaverton School District asking leaders to delay the return to in-person learning until the surge in delta-related COVID cases passes.
In her letter, Hasan went on to say, “I know that I am not alone in my fear of school reopening despite knowing how much it’s needed.”
Audel feels similarly.
“I just feel like it's a wildfire waiting to happen and I don't see why our kids should be caught in the crossfire,” said Audel.
KGW also reached out to the Beaverton School District. Spokesperson, Shellie Bailey-Shah said, “The Beaverton School District is following guidance from the governor, Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority and is planning for a full-time in-person learning model, starting September 8. Students wanting an online experience can apply to our flex online school.”
Werstein at PPS said the district has continued to juggle ever-evolving guidance around COVID-19 with trying keep students, employees and community members safe while at the same time attempting to keep a consistent learning schedule.
“As we all know, vaccinations against COVID-19 are the most effective way to end this pandemic and we will continue to provide vaccine clinics on our school campuses during registration and as the year begins," said Werstein. "We are also using a layered mitigation strategy (that includes vaccines, mask wearing, hand-washing, physical distance, ventilation/airflow and circulation, COVID testing and screening, regular cleaning and disinfecting, training and education, isolation and quarantining), as suggested by public health experts, that we believe will continue to help us ensure the safest possible learning environments for our students and employees."
Werstein also said the district is relying on guidance from Multnomah County Health.