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Bend-La Pine Schools go all in on reopening as virus infects more youth

Hannah Higgins has rolled with the punches during her second pandemic-wracked school year. Now, the 16-year-old high school junior says she’s exhausted, and scared.

She first adapted to learning online, then the hybrid model, where she met up with teachers and classmates just two days a week. This month, things changed again, as Bend-La Pine Schools became the first large district in Oregon to resume in-person instruction for all grade levels, five days a week. Higgins describes each day back inside Bend’s Summit High School as a kind of endurance test.

“I question how I used to be able to go to school every day, and not be tired by the end,” she said. “I just tell myself: I need to get through the day. I’ve done this before. I can do it again.”

Her return to a high school with around 1,700 students comes as her home county is seeing a record-breaking surge in virus cases, with daily positive case counts as high as they’ve ever been, stressing hospital capacity for the region. On Tuesday Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced Deschutes among 15 Oregon counties now at “extreme risk,” triggering strict limits on social gatherings, restaurants, businesses, and places of worship.

Still, the packed hallways at Higgins’ high school will continue.

Education officials hope to keep Bend-La Pine Schools fully open during the crisis by enforcing strict health protocols, quarantine requirements, and promoting mass vaccination clinics for teens 16 and older at high schools throughout Central Oregon. The county’s schools will stay all-in on in-person learning, as long as few virus cases are directly linked to in-school activities, according to interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist.

“When I see districts that are so reluctant to bring their kids back, I’m hoping at the end of this year, we can say: ‘You can do this. You need to do this,’” Nordquist said.

The state’s top education official is also hopeful about Bend-La Pine’s example.

“We are continuing to show that with the protocols adhered to, that we’re still not seeing the transmission on school sites,” Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said.

Compared to last month in Deschutes County, the rate of youth 19 and under who are testing positive for COVID-19 has more than tripled, according to data provided by the county’s health department. It’s not clear if that sharp increase is related to school openings or other activities, like social gatherings.

It’s difficult to document school-based transmission because a school exposure typically isn’t the only place of exposure, Emily Freeland said, a branch director for the county’s COVID response team. On campus, students often don’t know exactly who they were around, and for how long, so it’s up to school staff to keep track of close contacts. Freeland said the investigations more often point toward after-school activities, where families get close, don’t mask and spread the virus.

“People are carpooling, they’re playing sports, they’re having sleepovers. There’s all these social activities, youth groups, the list goes on and on and on,” she said.

The public health department started offering free, confidential COVID testing at school sites after an outbreak in February shut down a high school’s hybrid learning program. A house party led to more than 40 Summit High students testing positive.

“Now, there are vaccinations going on at school sites, too. Central Oregon high schools are the first in the state to do this, starting this week,” Freeland said.

As the teen vaccinations begin to roll out, parents and students at some of the Bend district’s largest schools describe a flood of emails starting the same way: “This is an informational letter… a person associated with your student’s school has been diagnosed with COVID-19.”

But the scope of transmission inside school communities is unclear.

One parent who asked not to be identified told OPB they received six different notices in the past week about cases at Pacific Crest Middle School, while the school district’s online dashboard for COVID data showed just three cases at that school in the last 28 days.

A school district spokesperson could not immediately explain the disparity.

Higgins, the Summit High junior, said it’s all taken a toll on her mental health.

“Every day, you never know when you’re going to get a call saying that you have to miss school,” she said.

In classes, she sits three feet from her peers, following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, if one of the classmates tests positive, close contact for self-quarantine is considered six feet, also per CDC advice.

Nordquist told the school board Tuesday that 58 recent cases among students led to about 700 of their peers being placed in some form of quarantine. As KTVZ reported, those in isolation comprise around 5% of the entire student body.

The superintendent initially told OPB that the district wasn’t tracking the exact number of students sent home.

“There’s no question it’s disruptive,” she said. “It could be 15 or 20 students who are impacted by one positive case.”

In elementary grades, one close contact means the whole class switches back to distance learning, keeping the same teacher. But older students with more complicated schedules don’t flip to online when they isolate. They’re given assignments to work on their own.

Michelle Mattingly got a call to keep her teen son at home just two days after he went back to classes full time.

“I am 100% for all-in [reopening],” she said. “The irony here is that at least with hybrid, there was some stability, one-on-one instruction, and access to an actual teacher.”

Oregon’s guidance around how to run schools safely in the pandemic has changed about a dozen times since it came out in July, according to state Education Department Director Gill.

“It would be absolutely possible for the guidelines to be revised,” Gill said. “It’s up to districts to decide what options they offer quarantined youth for learning.”

Bend-La Pine dedicated an administrator, Paul Dean, to be its COVD czar. He works with dozens of staff districtwide to implement the state’s Ready Schools Safe Learning Guidance, as it changes, or doesn’t play out as expected.

“It leads to an exhaustion,” Dean said, “Because you’re constantly having to think and create new plans. You can never get into an established routine because there’s always some tweaking of plans that we need to do, to make sure that the safety of our community is paramount.”

Pictures of teens rubbing shoulders in the hallways at Summit High recently surfaced on social media, sparking ridicule and outrage by some parents, as the Bulletin reported. Dean said the district responded by staggering releases from class. Though, that can create other bottlenecks.

“The problem solving seems to be continuous. As soon as you’ve solved one problem, something else pops up,” Dean said.

Lunches at the large high schools are especially troublesome, he said, because on each campus more than 1,000 kids go at the same time. The primary concern is to keep everyone distanced and moving, so students aren’t crowded together for very long, Dean said.

For the class of 2021, how graduation will look is up in the air. There are no plans for a prom night, Dean said.

But some families are rejecting the notion that the pandemic should alter school functions any longer. Social media posts suggest some parents and students plan to host their own prom outside school grounds. An unofficial prom invitation recently showed up in the 4,600-member Redmond, Oregon Facebook group.

“Me and my mom are throwing a prom for juniors and seniors this year,” went the post. “If you are a parent of a junior or senior at any high school please spread the word!”

Nordquist, the district superintendent, said students are by and large willing to follow the rules at sanctioned school activities, but parents can be another story.

“Where we’ve had the biggest struggle is spectators at athletic events, [where] you have to be masked. There have been people so vociferous in their objections, that we’ve eventually had to trespass them,” Nordquist said.

Families who don’t want their students to follow school safety rules are referred to comprehensive distance learning, she added.

Meanwhile, health officials in the county endure another wave of sick patients. On Tuesday, St. Charles Medical Center reported nearing its bed capacity, with 30 COVID patients.

“The average age of the patient hospitalized in the ICU with COVID-19 is 13 years younger in March and April than it was in January and February,” the hospital’s chief physician executive Jeff Absalon told Central Oregon Daily News.

A submitted view of the COVID-19 case notification letters sent to a Pacific Crest Middle School parent since April 22, 2021.
Emily Cureton /
A submitted view of the COVID-19 case notification letters sent to a Pacific Crest Middle School parent since April 22, 2021.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting