Portland Public Schools High School Students Share Their Thoughts on Returning to In-Person Instruction

In an effort to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, PPS will be adopting what it calls its “Swiss cheese model” of “Layered Health and Safety Measures Against COVID-19.”

For K-12 students in Portland Public Schools, Sept. 1 marks the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year.

After more than a year of schools experimenting with alternative models—fully remote and then hybrid learning—students are now, in most cases, expected to return to class.

In an effort to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, PPS will be adopting what it calls its “Swiss cheese model” of “Layered Health and Safety Measures Against COVID-19.” This includes a mask mandate except during outdoor activities, routine cleaning and disinfecting of all surfaces, robust air filtration in school buildings, and promoting—though not requiring—vaccination of students 12 and up.

Willamette Week spoke to three PPS high schoolers about their expectations for the coming school year. Not surprisingly, their feelings on returning to an in-person setting were mixed: excitement over the prospect of socializing with their friends, but anxiety about the Delta variant and the possibility of future lockdowns.

Declan Bilotta, 15, sophomore at Grant High School

What has the last year or so of school been like?

With remote learning, we obviously didn’t get to see much more than the computer screen. Then, moving into hybrid learning, I was still a little skeptical, because it was still such a big problem back then. My brother actually stayed remote, but I went into hybrid because I thrive more in a social environment. I got to meet some of my classmates and, overall, I felt like that was a safe environment. But now, this year, I feel a little more unsafe going back because of the Delta variant.

Have you been looking forward to returning to school this year?

When the school year ended last year, I had been a little bit excited for the summer to end so that I could actually go back to school. I made some plans for what I’d be doing this year—I had plans to start a club, I had plans to join the choir. And I’m not going to abort those plans, but when I heard the Delta variant was spreading very quickly, there was a bit of trepidation, because I was thinking, “OK, we have this new strain of the virus.” There was this reality check for me. It was this moment when I thought, “Not again…”

Do you know anyone who has contracted COVID?

I know of people who have been ill in the past year. I don’t know, and I also know they don’t know, if it was COVID. My family, very, very early before COVID hit the USA, came down with something very bad. We don’t know if that was COVID, we didn’t get tested. We didn’t know it was moving through the country.

What would you say are the best- and worst-case scenarios for this coming school year?

Best-case scenario: We go to school with masks, everyone’s vaccinated, we get through the whole school year, no one gets sick, and no one dies—just go through the year normally with face coverings. Worst-case scenario: The Delta variant gets into the school. The vaccinations aren’t effective. Possibly people die. And we go back to distance learning. Chaos unfolds.

Larsen Raddle, 18, second-year senior at Leodis McDaniel High School

What has the last year or so of school been like?

I took summer school this summer, and I passed that a couple of weeks ago. Some of my senior year before that was hybrid. Going back is supposed to be all in person, but I don’t really know right now, because of Delta COVID.

Have you been looking forward to returning to school this year?

I like the idea of everyone going back to school in person, but I feel like it’s not really the right time with the new variant. If they’re going to have everyone back in public school, you should at least be fully vaccinated before you can go.

Do you know anyone who has contracted COVID?

Not anyone who went to school with me. My dad had the first variant, but it didn’t really affect him that much, and he was vaccinated. My mom just recently got the new variant, and she’s vaccinated. I don’t live with either of them.

Is there anything the school district could do to make you feel better about returning to school?

I would feel the safest going back to something like hybrid or even online.

Danny Cage, 17, junior at Grant High School

What has the last year or so of school been like?

At the start of COVID, it was really lonely. There was no one to really interact with. The hardest thing was not being able to ask the teacher—even if I asked the teacher, I didn’t feel like I was really interacting with the teacher. I just got really distracted.

We have all these variants that are popping out…every three weeks [laughs]. When we went to hybrid, they were only half days, so they didn’t do lunch. There’s no plan yet in PPS for what lunch [will look like]. And that’s something I want to know. Are we not going to eat? There’s no way to, like, slip a piece of pizza under your mask. Kids are going to have to take off their masks to eat.

Do you know anyone who contracted COVID?

I know two people, but they didn’t get sick. They just tested positive, but that was before the new strains. I know one person who got sick with the Delta variant, and they just got vaccinated.

Is there anything Portland Public Schools could do to make you feel better about returning to school?

A lot of kids failed a whole bunch of different subjects. Giving people that time to make up that credit in the off time or during the summer, or giving an online option. A lot of PPS schools are really resistant to online options to make up credits and stuff like that—as if their curriculum is the only adequate curriculum!

Willamette Week’s Parents & Kids Issue 2021