Portland Public Schools has adopted a new policy for nearly 6,000 K-12 students whose classrooms have already closed due to an unprecedented number of staff and students who are sick or exposed to COVID-19: Welcome the healthy back to participate in extracurricular activities, including indoor sports such as basketball and wrestling and activities such as performing arts and robotics.
The district administrators revealed the policy to the school board on Tuesday evening. At least five of the seven board members welcomed the move. The policy also appears to have gained widespread support from many students and parents who want to leave behind nearly two years of disruption caused by the pandemic — and the associated depression or stress that comes with it.
But the policy has also set alarm bells ringing among critics, who worry it will prioritize extracurricular activities over in-person instruction and will only increase its dissemination, extending the time students in closed schools stay online.
As of this week, four Portland high schools and two K-8 or high schools are on temporary distance learning, but district leaders warn more may follow.
As the pandemic enters its final phase — the era of the highly transmissible but less virulent Omicron variant — school leaders in Portland and elsewhere are grappling with how best to move forward. One argument is that the public should do everything possible to keep schools alive and reduce the burden on hospitals, which are quickly overwhelmed by the very small but significant portion of the population that will suffer from serious illness.
Another argument is that omicron is so contagious that efforts to contain it are futile, and school communities should try to save what little quality of life they have left for their students. If that means continuing with extracurricular activities – even if schools can’t find enough healthy staff to open classrooms – then so be it.
“It’s a different ball game here with omicron,” board member Amy Kohnstamm told The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday that she finds the latter argument more compelling. Many families, she said, agree.
“There is definitely broad support from students and families,” Kohnstamm said. “But in terms of personal learning, I’ll tell you unequivocally that the neighborhood values that above all else. Decisions to close schools and move to distance learning… it’s an operational matter.”
It’s unclear whether Portland’s new policy violates guidelines from the Oregon Department of Education, which on Jan. 3 urged schools in the state to suspend extracurricular activities, stating that districts that did not “prompt transfers of COVID-19 should be expected that will prevent students from participating in personal learning.”
The department also offered schools the opportunity to expand safety protocols and continue extracurricular activities, but said if they choose that path, they should warn students and parents of the likely consequences of widespread infections.
Like most districts in the Portland Triangle, Portland’s public schools chose to continue extracurricular activities, including sports with stricter regulations, such as requiring athletes to wear masks at all times. Four days after school returned from winter break, Portland began announcing temporary closures — and that initially included canceling athletics and other activities.
Oregon Department of Education spokesman Peter Rudy said Colt Gill, principal of state schools, was unavailable for an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive on Wednesday. Rudy did not answer a question about whether the department has sanctioned holding athletics and other activities while students continue to learn remotely.
Last week, however, Gill said in a news conference that holding personal school “all day, every school day…remains our top priority.” Gill also pleaded with school communities and the general public to avoid activities outside the classroom that could jeopardize schools’ ability to continue personalized education.
Other school districts with personal class closures have taken different approaches. Parkrose and Tigard-Tualatin have maintained a shutdown on extracurricular activities, with the latter specifically citing “student social events” and “sports” as sources of spread.
But David Douglas, who announced the closure of all of his schools on Thursday and Friday because of the decision to switch to district-wide distance learning, is following Portland’s path by allowing athletics to continue even if it does. learning in the classroom that is not.
Nationally, policies also vary from district to district, with many activities temporarily suspended along with personal learning. But a notable number of others, including Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan, allow sports and other events to continue.
The dilemma of how to proceed was fully on display Tuesday night, with Portland’s school administrators offering several takes.
“I just want to thank you,” said board member Eilidh Lowery, who said she and others were inundated with emails urging the district to adopt the new policy. “I know it was a lot of work and conversation. And again, I think that underscores the fact that our leadership is so receptive to our community. That when a decision is made, there is always listening, growing and learning.”
Lowery told The Oregonian/OregonLive that allowing extracurricular activities is important not only for the mental health of students, but also for seniors seeking athletic scholarships or participating in competitions where they win prizes that they will list on their college applications.
Board member Herman Greene expressed reservations about allowing athletic exercise and games as Oregon’s new known daily infections routinely break records, with more than 7,600 average daily cases as of Wednesday. Coaches and players may feel pressured to play for fear that they will drop in the standings if they lose matches.
“You’re talking about sports,” Greene said. ‘You sweat. You run up and down the floor. You touch the same ball. In wrestling you actually grab each other.”
Greene continued: “At some point we have to take responsibility and recognize that if we continue to push for this, we will encourage the transmission of this virus. We provide distribution. We endanger the lives of young people because we tell them, ‘We need you to get out there, hurry through it, be strong.’”
Jackson Weinberg, the board’s student representative, said the new policy appeared to be a “contradiction” with the goal of keeping students in the classroom.
“If we keep operations open, aren’t we sustaining the spread of COVID-19?”
Portland Public Schools chief of staff Jonathan Garcia acknowledged the risks. He told board members the district saw “entire teams” of basketball players and staff infected or quarantined after participating in tournaments during the winter break.
“These types of activities increase the risk of COVID-19,” Garcia said. “That’s just part of the reality of people sweating and walking around like that.”
Garcia was unavailable to answer further questions from The Oregonian/Oregonlive on Wednesday. He did say during Tuesday’s board meeting that players should not feel pressured to play if they are sick. He also expressed support for the district’s new policy, which will limit the number of spectators in an effort to limit the spread.
On Wednesday, Rene Gonzalez, co-founder of Portland-based advocacy group ED300, which was founded with the goal of reopening schools earlier in the pandemic, said it was “extremely unfortunate” to see some schools switch to distance learning. , but it would cause further injuries to shut down athletics as well.
Students are hungry for a way to connect, he said.
“If you took away sports after all this,” Gonzalez said, “there would be a lot of anger and a lot of sadness.”
— Aimee Green; email@example.com; @o_aimee