About 5% of Bend-La Pine Schools students are under quarantine orders due to the current surge in COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County, Superintendent Lora Nordquist told the school board Tuesday night.
There have been 58 COVID-19 cases connected with local schools in the past 10 days, which has prompted the quarantine of about 700 students, Nordquist said.
And even though she doesn’t believe the vast majority of these COVID-19 cases are being spread within schools, Nordquist said the district may have to take action soon to prevent additional quarantines, and support those students stuck at home.
“If our case counts don’t start going down fairly soon, we might need to look at a Plan B,” Nordquist warned at Tuesday night’s meeting. “Not sure what that is, but we have a lot of kids at home right now, and that’s a concern.”
District leadership also warned that in-person graduation might not be possible in June if community spread of COVID-19 doesn’t slow.
“We are going to have a graduation ceremony, but it may not involve many people,” said Deputy Superintendent Katie Legace at the meeting.
However, a districtwide reversal to online school is unlikely.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Nordquist said in-person school closures would be a school-by-school decision. And on Wednesday, Julianne Repman — the district’s director of safety — confirmed that.
“I don’t think distance learning for everyone is on the table at all,” Repman said.
In an email to The Bulletin on Wednesday, Paul Dean — Bend-La Pine’s safe and healthy schools administrator — wrote that the district isn’t considering online school for all schools, but temporarily returning to distancing learning could be an option for an individual school, if its case counts get too high.
However, school officials still believe these increased student case counts aren’t being spread within schools. Repman told The Bulletin that so far, only one elementary school case, from six weeks ago, has been confirmed as an in-school spread.
“This is a really big deal...and a testament that our safety policies and procedures are working as best as they can be,” board member Carrie McPherson Douglass said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The general consensus among Bend-La Pine leaders is that skyrocketing COVID-19 cases throughout Central Oregon are causing students to test positive. Last week, Deschutes County Health Services identified 507 new cases locally — a sharp jump from the count of 60 new cases in late March.
During the meeting, board member Amy Tatom expressed frustration with the Bend community’s inability to follow COVID-19 protocol and stop the virus’ spread.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily because our schools are open — I think it’s the attitude our public has that because schools are open, they can resume normal life,” she said Tuesday. “That attitude is jeopardizing, for example, our seniors being able to have an in-person graduation, and that makes me sad.”
Board member Julie Craig agreed, and noted that if teens are catching the virus, it’s likely happening outside of schools, where staff can’t enforce pandemic rules.
“Personally, I’m not worried about 3 feet (of distancing) in the schools, because somebody can monitor that,” she said at the meeting. “It’s everything else we don’t have control over. It’s this change in attitude and just being tired of everything.”
Repman told The Bulletin on Wednesday that a local school had an incorrect case count due to a technical error on Microsoft Excel, but that has been fixed.
One of Repman and Dean’s major concerns about the number of students in quarantine was their ability to learn. She noted that students in quarantine can’t easily get one-on-one help from teachers, so the district may have to come up with a novel way to assist those students from home.
District leadership is considering ways to increase access to tutors or have live instruction for students stuck at home quarantining, Dean wrote.
Nordquist did have some positive COVID-19 news Tuesday night — starting Thursday, local health groups, such as Mosaic Medical, will be running vaccine clinics within all four major Bend-La Pine high schools, starting with Bend High School.
George Conway, director of Deschutes County Health Services, told the Deschutes County Commission on Wednesday morning that the recent substantial increase in COVID-19 cases is mostly being driven by young adults, including teenagers.
He also noted that vaccination rates were much lower for teens — only about 4% of residents ages 19 or younger had received at least one vaccine dose, compared to over 90% of residents ages 75-84.
Now that people ages 16 and up can be vaccinated, Conway heavily encouraged local teens and young adults to do so.
“It’s understandable, young people want to gather and socialize and not be so concerned about (COVID-19 precautions),” he said at the County Commission meeting. “The pathway forward for really substantial freedom is to get vaccinated.”
Nordquist could not be reached for additional comment Wednesday