Editorial: Even in the wave of COVID, in-person school must be the norm

News last week that three Portland-area schools are reverting to distance learning was both a disappointment and a stark reminder of the vigilance our community needs to take to advocate for teaching in education. anybody. Amid rising COVID-19 cases, staff shortages, and discontent from teacher unions, there are no easy decisions for school districts – even when we know which one is the right one.

Portland Public Schools announced Thursday night that the district is temporarily closing two high schools, McDaniel in northeast Portland and Cleveland in southeast Portland, due to understaffing, starting the next day. The students will spend this week there in distance learning. The Parkrose School District also announced last week that it would be closing Prescott Elementary School for a day – last Friday – due to understaffing.

Regardless of the reason or justification, these closures are a loss for students, who have suffered deeply from the extended year of distance education. As the community now knows from a plethora of research, data, and their own experiences as parents, students do best socially, emotionally, and academically when they attend school in person, aided by learning. structure of routine personal interaction with peers and teachers and the reassuring feeling of belonging to a community of their own. Distance learning is not an acceptable substitute and we must stop seeing it as such, even in the midst of a pandemic.

While there are few options beyond closing some schools when more than 400 district staff cannot come to work the next day, it is nonetheless a disappointment that students must be turned away. Portland Public Schools have made the right move by limiting the closures to two high schools as they plan to transfer replacements to other schools and reinforce staff there.

Unfortunately, as the district has warned, there could be more closures to come. The increase in COVID cases is certainly fueling some absences, exacerbating already understaffed schools. But PPS, the community, and education officials in Oregon must do everything in their power to keep schools open for in-person instruction as much as possible.

Oregon has hundreds of millions of untapped federal funds specifically to support schools during the pandemic. As districts are already trying to hire more educators, replacements, and other key staff, they should also look to use those dollars to extend the school year if COVID or staff shortages force a switch to distance learning. The governor, as the state’s superintendent of public education, is expected to set expectations for what districts are expected to provide to students this year and ensure that they are met, whether through statements public, private pressure, executive action or a combination of the three.

Health and public health professionals, many of whom have already emphasized the need to keep schools open, can help by injecting data and perspective to allay overwhelming fears. While officials worry about an increase in the number of cases overwhelming hospitals, other states don’t see the same severity of COVID in patients as with past variants because omicron is milder. They may also remind people of extensive research showing that schools, with appropriate mitigation measures, are not significant sources of the spread of COVID.

And the community must respond too – by following any health advice we know by heart, volunteering in schools where possible, and communicating with school board members, district officials and teachers to support their efforts. with regard to and maintaining open schools.

While PPS families may be nervous about what to expect, they should be encouraged by Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s unambiguous statement on Friday about prioritizing in-person training. In fact, PPS has already shown that it focuses on students in the way it has overcome the challenges that have arisen so far. While some school districts across the country have chosen to delay resuming classes or switch to distance education after winter break, PPS was not one of them. Instead, he reminded the community of the essential nature of face-to-face teaching, noted the safeguards in place, and delivered a back to business message.

Then last week, as infections statewide increased, the state recommended districts either cancel extracurricular activities or adopt more stringent COVID protections. PPS opted for the latter, noting the community’s high immunization rate – the most important factor in protecting people from severe cases of COVID – while stressing the valuable role extracurricular activities play in student life.

And last month, when the Portland Teachers Association sought to cut back in-person tuition for students to give teachers more time to plan, the district did not back down. As exhausted teachers and staff need help and support, PPS’s determination despite pressure from its most powerful union has shown leadership and a commitment to putting students first by Guerrero, his district school board and staff.

To be sure, PPS has made its fair share of mistakes, from an awkward deployment of testing in schools to a dearth of outdoor facilities where elementary school children can have lunch. But district policies aim to make the act of going to school something expected – not extraordinary. This confident attitude, focused on what students need most and reinforced by data-driven policies to protect student health, should motivate us all to let go of our fear and stop holding on to what seems the easiest. We have put the needs of students on the back burner for too long. It is time to move on.

-The Oregonian / OregonLive Editorial Board

Oregon Editorials

The editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian / OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the Editorial Board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.

Board members meet regularly to determine our institutional position on topical issues. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can provide clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from press articles.

If you have any questions about the Opinion Section, email Opinion Writer Helen Jung or call 503-294-7621.

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