COVID-19 case counts in Multnomah County are rising as middle and high school students return to Portland Public Schools classrooms this week.
County officials reported 109 cases of the virus per 100,000 people over the past two-week reporting period, which ended April 11. At 200 cases per 100,000 people, PPS middle and high schools wouldn’t have reopened.
Even with case counts rising, studies suggest that if schools take precautions, they will not be the source of increased spread of COVID-19 in the larger community.
But the district must make sure kids aren’t bringing cases home. Based on how the district has handled elementary schools, school officials are still figuring out how to test kids. RACHEL MONAHAN.
As of April 19, Rose City Park and Hayhurst elementary schools, as well as Lincoln High School’s athletics program, have each had two documented cases of COVID-19.
Portland Public Schools says the cases aren’t connected. “At this time, we have not seen any indication that there has been transmission within a school site,” says Karen Werstein, a spokeswoman for the district.
Cases are each from different classrooms of students, Werstein said.
PPS has seen 15 total cases since spring break, when in-class instruction resumed on some days. Elementary schools with a single case include Boise-Eliot/Humboldt, Bridlemile, Faubion, Laurelhurst, Lent and Markham. Two Head Start programs, at Clarendon and Sacajawea elementaries, as well as Jefferson High School’s athletics program, also each have a single case.
What does PPS do when a student tests positive?
It offers testing to anyone who shows symptoms at school. (It also asks everyone in an affected classroom—known as a “cohort”—to quarantine for 10 to 14 days.)
Public health officials recommend testing if you have had contact with someone who tests positive for COVID. Younger kids are more likely to not to show symptoms when they get COVID-19.
That’s important because the district initially said it can’t test anyone who doesn’t show symptoms.
“We do offer testing for staff or students onsite,” says PPS’s Werstein. “We’re only allowed by the Oregon Health Authority guidelines to test students or staff if they experience symptoms. Once quarantined, if they develop symptoms, we ask them to work with their health care provider, as we will not bring potentially positive staff or students onto a campus for testing. We will help them find free testing options in the community if they are not at school already.”
Werstein later acknowledged that the district can test asymptomatic cases if the public health authority says so. (The rapid tests that PPS uses aren’t as accurate with asymptomatic cases, so it may be better to test elsewhere.)
What’s next in testing?
Federal funding may provide an opening for the state to provide districts across Oregon to test all students on a regular basis,as has been done in Massachusetts. That’s what at least one Portland School Board member would like to see.
“This is an equity issue,” says board member Rita Moore. “In the absence of an effective, reliable surveillance screening system, it’s substantially more difficult to convince families of color that sending their kids back to the classroom is safe, because we don’t have any evidence.”