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Education

Oregon schools struggle to stay open as omicron spreads

Grover Cleveland High School is pictured in Portland, Ore., Thursday, July 25, 2019. Portland Public Schools administrators announced that the Cleveland, McDaniel and Roosevelt high schools are returning to remote learning Monday because of student and teacher absences.
Elizabeth Miller
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Grover Cleveland High School is pictured in Portland, Ore., Thursday, July 25, 2019. Portland Public Schools administrators announced that the Cleveland, McDaniel and Roosevelt high schools are returning to remote learning Monday because of student and teacher absences.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads through Oregon, schools and businesses are scrambling to stay open with fewer healthy people. State health officials say the surge of infections will get worse before it gets better.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads through Oregon, schools and businesses are scrambling to stay open with fewer healthy people.

Over the weekend, administrators at four Portland Public Schools campuses — Cleveland, McDaniel and Roosevelt high schools and Ockley Green Middle School — announced they would transition back to remote learning starting Monday because of student and teacher absences. The closures will last at least this week.

Leaders in another Portland district, Parkrose, announced Sunday evening that all of its campuses will be closed Monday due to staffing shortages. The district had reported an average of 20% to 30% of its students were absent last week and staff absences were as high as 25% in some cases. School administrators said they would be in touch with families and staff about what happens next.

In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, Durham Elementary will transition to distance learning this week, officials announced Sunday.

And in Central Oregon, Jefferson County School District, announced that it’s closing the Warm Springs K-8 Academy campus. Administrators said the decision wasn’t because of absences, but “to be good partners” with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

The omicron surge is also impacting some public services, including transportation. The Portland area mass transit agency, TriMet, will shift 20 of its 84 bus lines to less frequent service starting Monday because of a driver shortage.

“We hope service will return to normal levels soon but we do not have an estimate on when that will happen,” the agency’s announcement reads.

More than 10,000 cases of COVID-19 in Oregon were reported Friday, ending a record-breaking week for the state. The seven-day average of cases increased by 373%. That number is likely an undercount, given the number of home rapid tests that aren’t reported to the state.

State health officials painted a dire picture at a press conference on Friday. They said they estimate about 65% of Oregonians no longer have immunity to the virus from previous infection or vaccination.

There are so many cases that public health officials have given up contact tracing. Instead, the Oregon Health Authority is setting up a hotline to give advice to people who have tested positive.

At Friday’s press conference, officials encouraged Oregonians to get a booster vaccine if they haven’t already — about 35% of the state is boostered.

Although breakthrough cases may increase in likelihood, triple-vaccinated people are far less likely to experience serious COVID-19 symptoms.

Health officials also encouraged people to wear well-fitting KN95 or N95 masks, since cloth masks are less effective against the highly transmissible omicron variant, and they advised people to create a plan in case they become ill and need to quarantine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has decreased the number of days that people should quarantine when they test positive, from 10 days down to five. The Oregon Department of Education hasn’t done the same; if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, they’re told to quarantine away from campus for at least 10 days.

Oregon health officials expect omicron to oversaturate the health system.

And the surge is going to get worse before it gets better: State projections place the peak at the end of January, when we could see about 40% more hospitalizations than during last year’s surge of the delta variant.

To prepare, the Oregon National Guard plans to deploy up to 500 members to Oregon hospitals.

The Oregon Health Authority has also published new guidelines for hospitals if or when resources become limited. The triage tool is supposed to help them decide who gets urgent, life-saving care in a crisis — and who may not — when there aren’t enough critical resources, such as intensive care beds, available. It’s partly based on updated standards published by Arizona, Massachusetts and Washington.

The state’s triage guidelines direct hospitals to rank patients by evaluating the likelihood of their short-term survival to hospital discharge.

In the event of a tie between two patients who need the same resources, the person already receiving care would continue to get it, unless their condition had worsened.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.