LOSD navigates public health concerns around reopening

Sophia Wang, Editor-In-Chief

As LOSD schools prepare to return to in-person learning starting February, administrators, educators and community members have a wide variety of perspectives on the district’s ability to reopen safely. 

Superintendent Lora de la Cruz underscored the importance of prioritizing elementary students in the phased transition back to school, citing confidence in the strict safety protocols, community efforts and evidence showing low rates of transmission in schools. “[LOSD] has a really thoughtful approach where they’re very gradual, starting with the youngest learners, I think that’s really important that we just all have to stay very nimble. You know, I think it’s good to begin trying some in-person instruction, seeing how it goes, learn a whole lot, and then adjust plans accordingly,” Clackamas County Public Health Director Philip Mason-Joyner said.

There are, however, concerns around how community spread metrics and the vaccination timeline will fit into the reopening schedule. The Lake Oswego Education Association (LOEA), representing 440 LOSD teachers and staff, has voiced concerns on the safety of a reopening timeline that isn’t tied to metrics or the availability of vaccinations. LOEA president Kelly Fitzsimmons said that despite the accelerated vaccination timeline for teachers, many teachers want the district administration to delay reopening until teachers can receive the vaccine and develop immunity.

Another common concern is the high level of community spread locally: with over 200 cases per 100,000 people, Clackamas County’s most recent metrics place it in the “extreme risk” category. “I still think that the metrics are so important to look at as school boards and administrators make decisions about reopening,” Mason-Joyner said, but “When spread is this high, it’s really important to know that we’re seeing based on the science that kids aren’t getting COVID in the classroom, it’s happening when they’re out in the community outside of the school.” The decision of school reopening is ultimately up to the district, and Mason-Joyner said “We just want to do the best we can to support schools while also being really transparent about our capacity.”

The county public health department has more than doubled its workforce since last spring for contact tracing efforts, which involve calling people, conducting interviews, providing consultations and giving safety guidance. Spread mitigation and reopening support for 150 schools across Clackamas County has added to the load. “We just don’t have enough resources to meet all the needs going on right now. Vaccine distribution with school reopening with contact tracing work, it’s just a lot going on. And we have a little under 100 people doing this work for the whole county,” Mason-Joyner said.

Fitzsimmons also described the hard work and passion teachers have put into adapting to the past year of distance learning. “Every single teacher in this District truly misses being with their students,” she said, but due to new safety guidelines and a shortened in-person day, The days where we can return to the school life we remember are still far away.  Reopening now will put teachers into a riskier situation than they initially agreed to, and it will not return our students to the life that we are all longing for.”

Mason-Joyner expressed his hope for “employers and associations and community members to band together to help get the rates down and support each other; I feel like COVID has just taught us all we have to adapt, we have to be flexible.”