Editorial Board: It’s too early to return students en masse to Portland high schools

A+sign+outside+the+Oregon+Convention+Center+designates+it+as+a+COVID+vaccination+site.

Courtesy of Heather Back and Kaiser Permanente

A sign outside the Oregon Convention Center designates it as a COVID vaccination site.

We would like to acknowledge that none of our board’s members have been severely affected by the coronavirus. We are speaking from a place of privilege but believe that our message is in the best interest of the wider Lincoln community. For more information on The Cardinal Times Editorial Board, visit our “about” page.

On Dec. 23, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced she would ease statewide restrictions placed on school districts with the goal of having students back on campus by Feb. 15.  

Statewide, schools were shut down in mid-March when there were only dozens of estimated cases. Now, Oregon is averaging over 700 daily. We think a mass re-entry of students into high schools seems unsafe, especially as the new, more contagious strain of the virus begins to spread.

On Jan. 22, the Lincoln administration team held a listening session where they released their proposed plan to bring 10 students into school once a week on Wednesdays, focusing first on seniors who are not on track to graduate. If the plan is successful, Lincoln may consider bringing back up to 40 students a week to receive limited in-person learning. 

We support Lincoln’s current plan. We also believe that, after seniors, Lincoln should focus on English Language Learners and students in the Special Education department. 

We acknowledge that distance learning has been far from ideal for most students. Instruction via a screen can never match the instruction we would receive in person. For those who have trouble focusing, or need one-on-one interaction with their teachers and peers, distance learning has proven even more challenging.

In an ideal world, we would already have a building and classrooms with proper ventilation, and bathrooms that could potentially be used safely.”

But returning to fully in-person instruction, which many students seem to be pushing for, would be far worse.

For some schools, especially private and rural schools, returning to in-person learning, or attempting a hybrid model, may be a good idea if they have both the resources and space to efficiently attempt a return. But in one of the highest-spending and most mismanaged school districts in the United States, it seems unlikely that PPS has the funds to achieve their current reopening requirements.

The physical Lincoln building can be described, at its best, as sub-par, and, at its worst, a major health violation. Crumbling walls, a basement lacking proper ventilation and a cafeteria that only fits several dozen students comfortably has defined Lincoln for a generation of students. 

In an ideal world, we would already have a building and classrooms with proper ventilation, and bathrooms that could potentially be used safely, but the building doesn’t have basic amenities, even without a pandemic.

Additionally, for the next several years, Lincoln will be without a field, meaning that outdoor space is limited to the patio and the courtyard. This is hardly enough room for hundreds of unmasked students to social distance during lunch.

Without proper social distancing, each member of the Lincoln community would need to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus. By diverting vaccines – and hundreds of tests for students after an inevitable outbreak – from people that need them, PPS would be wasting resources and money, not to mention unnecessarily putting students, teachers and staff in danger. Tests are not abundant, and people need these tests much more than those of us who can safely be at home and learn online.

Aside from the waste of resources that frequent testing would bring, so many lingering logistical questions are virtually impossible to answer. Is it worth abandoning the current online learning system only to revert to it in one month or two weeks, or however long we’ll last before an inevitable outbreak? How can we ensure that the entire school would be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between each rotation of students entering to reduce any potential risk of virus transmission?

Administrators have immense pressure from Gov. Brown and many parents to bring students back to school.

In a survey conducted by the Lincoln administration earlier this month, almost 45% of students surveyed answered “yes” when asked if they wanted Lincoln to pursue a hybrid-model schedule second semester. 

This is where we inherently disagree– in our eyes, if the system “doesn’t work,” it won’t be worth it. Just one student’s death is not worth it. Worrying about the health of ourselves, our friends and our family is not worth it. If it goes poorly in any fashion, and any number of students contract COVID-19 and become sick or die, or pass the disease to a family member who becomes sick or dies, it will be seen, in our eyes, as a failure on the part of the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and PPS to protect us. 

We all want to go back to school. Those of us on the editorial board who are seniors have only been in high school in-person for two and a half years. But when we do return, it cannot be hastily done. It cannot be rushed. It must be done safely and conservatively, with thought and care, or we run the risk of more loss in this year of unimaginable losses.

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