In the middle of their first week back to in-person learning since March 2020, students at Bend’s Summit High School suddenly returned to distance learning Thursday, after 12 positive COVID-19 cases were identified in the school.
The move to online distance learning, and the presence of multiple COVID-19 cases in the school community, was confirmed by an email sent Wednesday night to Summit High families by Principal Michael McDonald. The identities of the people who tested positive — including whether they were students or staff members — were not revealed due to health privacy laws.
All extracurricular activities, including sports, will be canceled through the weekend, so contact tracing and case investigation can be conducted, said Julianne Repman, Bend-La Pine Schools’ director of safety and communications.
All Summit students will take part in distance learning Friday as well. However, that was pre-planned as a time for school staffers to receive their second vaccine doses, according to the high school’s website.
An email sent to families Wednesday night by Summit Principal Michael McDonald said a weekend party might be the reason behind the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It remains quite plausible that the party may have created a super-spreader environment — jeopardizing our ability to return to school and to school related events,” McDonald wrote. “To say that I am disappointed that dozens of local youths were in attendance at a confirmed party, unmasked and crowded together, would be a gross understatement.”
Bend-La Pine Schools and Deschutes County Health Services will also offer free COVID-19 testing Friday for those that feel they may have been exposed at Summit, McDonald wrote. Students who get tested who may have attended the party will not receive sanctions, he clarified.
Jace Bracelin — a junior at Summit who founded a student group, the Bend-La Pine Schools Student Union, in January to demand more stringent reopening safety measures — said he wasn’t surprised by the closure.
“This is exactly what we were saying was going to happen,” he told The Bulletin.
Bracelin, 17, confirmed that multiple Summit students attended a party last weekend. But he also noted that students from other local high schools were there as well, based on photos he saw.
“We understand that students want to go back to social settings, and that they have a desire to hang out with friends and feel some normalcy again,” Bracelin said of the party. “But we suggest that students definitely don’t do that.”
The school district did not confirm whether they were monitoring for cases, or if there were other COVID-19 outbreaks at Mountain View or Bend high schools.
Brittany DeBels — the mother of a sophomore at Summit and a pediatric nurse at St. Charles Bend — said she was disappointed and surprised that the students had to return to distance learning almost immediately after Summit reopened its doors.
“To have it be the first week, and already take this big step back, is unfortunate,” she said. “But I hope it’s a big wake up call for high schoolers all across the region, that this can happen.”
Johanna Bents, whose son is also a sophomore at Summit, said pausing in-person school was a smart decision. She believes the return to distance learning should give health officials plenty of time for contact tracing and investigation, so students can eventually go back to the classroom safely.
Her son felt similarly, she said.
“It was fine for him,” Bents said. “He wishes he were at school, but he understands that (contact tracing) needs to be taken care of.”
As a result of the outbreak, the high school’s athletic programs are canceling practices until students are able to return to the classroom. This comes less than 24 hours after high school sports in Oregon won approval to return to play after 11 months.
“Since the school closed, we (the athletic department) are closing down,” said Summit Athletic Director Mike Carpenter.Outdoor contact sports were granted permission by the governor Wednesday to move forward with competition. Schools in high and extreme risk counties — as is the case for all the schools in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties — must have limited in-person learning in place, with the goal of achieving hybrid or full in-person instruction this school year, according to the governor’s office.
It has not been announced whether Summit students will remain in distance learning next week. However, Repman said she believed students will return to in-person learning by Tuesday, after the Presidents Day holiday.
This is not the first time Summit students upset educators and county health officials by throwing a party during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 20 seniors held an unofficial, unmasked homecoming party last October.