On April 14, an anonymous user posted a photo on Reddit of a Bend High School hallway where students were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. The picture — titled ”Social Distancing at Bend High” — prompted over 100 comments to the Bend-specific forum of the popular website, many about the safety of students inside schools during a pandemic.
“It’s insane,” Bend High School senior Jade Jager told The Bulletin. “It’s nearly impossible to maintain 3 feet of distance, let alone 6 in the hallways.”
Jager said simply walking through the hallways can be nerve-wracking. She’s concerned about accidentally bringing home COVID-19 to her high-risk brother, who can’t attend in-person school, she said.
“I’m not only worrying about myself, but also my family,” said Jager, 17. “I know a lot of other people are in similar situations — there’s a deadly virus going around.”
This has been the case since Bend-La Pine Schools left its hybrid schedule on April 12 for middle and high schools. Thousands of students are in school in-person, all together for the first time since COVID-19 forced school online in March 2020.
Bend-La Pine administrators are aware of hallway crowding in their schools. Their solutions include releasing students from class at different times to keep hallways more open, using multiple lunch pickup locations and asking students to not stop and chat.
“The message has been pretty simple: Keep moving,” said Michael McDonald, principal of Summit High School.
Paul Dean, Bend-La Pine’s safe healthy schools administrator and de facto COVID-19 czar, said he and high school administrators immediately went to work on changes after seeing the crowded hallway photo at Bend High School.
The goal of the changes is to alleviate “pinch points,” which is what Dean calls congested portions of hallways. He noted that these sections are only extremely crowded for a moment or two, before students return to classrooms.
“Those pinch points are a short duration, but we’re still trying to clear them up regardless,” Dean said.
McDonald said he’s seen the photo of the crowded Bend High School hallway, as well as other crowded school hallway photos. But he said these photos actually show students following COVID-19 protocol as well as they can in that tricky situation.
“I know those students all have masks on, and they’re all on the move, and that’s encouraging to me,” McDonald said. “I’m really impressed with how much the students are following the guidelines around keeping moving and getting to class.”
Even so, that crowded hallway photo came at an awkward time for the school district.
COVID-19 case counts have skyrocketed in recent weeks in Oregon, and Deschutes County is no exception. Between April 3 and April 17, weekly case counts in Deschutes County shot up from 150 to 394, according to county data.
However, county data shows that only 10% of local cases come from people aged 10-19. Meanwhile, 55% of county positive cases come from residents in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Furthermore, county contact tracers have found that the majority of new cases recently have come from people gathering without masks, said Morgan Emerson, spokesperson for Deschutes County Health Services. That’s something not allowed inside schools.
“It’s things like carpooling without masks, even barbecues where people aren’t distancing,” Emerson said.
There have been a few COVID-19 cases detected in Bend-La Pine’s high schools.
Exempting a mid-February outbreak of 43 Summit students — who caught COVID-19 due to an off-campus, maskless party — 18 high schoolers in Bend-La Pine Schools have tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 14, according to state data. Five school staffers at Bend-La Pine high schools have also tested positive this year.
Dean said he doesn’t want to assume that the crowded hallways are or aren’t a major COVID-19 risk, although he still finds them concerning.
“None of us are scientists,” he said. “(But) we think we can do it better, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Although middle schools also have passing periods, Dean isn’t as concerned about COVID-19 spreading there.
Not only are younger students more likely to follow COVID-19 rules than high schoolers, but middle schools have multiple lunches, so fewer students are moving about at once, Dean said.
Middle schools also have much smaller populations — Bend’s largest middle school, High Desert, has about 760 students. Mountain View High has over 1,200 students, and Summit and Bend high schools each have more than 1,500 students.
“You don’t have 1,500 students moving all at once,” Dean said. “In fact, in some schools, you might have 150 or 200 students moving.”