Eric Happel and Leslie Bienen
Happel works at Nike and coaches youth soccer. Bienen is on faculty at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. Both are active in ED300, a grassroots school advocacy group, have teenagers, and live in Portland.
Since the school year began, more than 2,700 students in Portland Public Schools have had to quarantine for exposure to a confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 case, according to PPS’ COVID-19 dashboard. With district protocols requiring quarantined students to stay home for 10 consecutive days, students in PPS have collectively missed about 21,000 school days.
This phenomenon is happening across Oregon, with tens of thousands of students missing school after being deemed “close contacts” of people with COVID. Recognizing the harms of massive absences, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said he is working with the Oregon Health Authority to look at shifting to a “test-to-stay” system, in which students who now have to quarantine can remain in school instead as long as they test negative for COVID-19.
Gill’s stance, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, is good news. Oregon ranked 49th out of 50 states last year at delivering in-person K-12 instruction, according to the technology company Burbio’s school-opening tracker. Last year’s educational disaster in Oregon is already manifest in data showing that 12,000 ninth graders failed to earn at least six of the 24 credits needed to graduate – a key predictor of graduation rates. If historical rates hold, some 60% of those students may not graduate. Low-income students and racial/ethnic minorities saw the biggest drops in graduation readiness.
The goal of school mitigation strategies should be to meaningfully slow the spread of COVID-19, while not unduly harming students and staff. By this standard, current quarantine policies, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are failing miserably. Not surprisingly, at least 30 states appear to have either adopted a test-to-stay approach or ditched the CDC’s close-contact quarantine recommendations completely, based on state health websites. Oregon should quickly join them.
Although Oregon’s current policy keeps even those who test negative for COVID out of school for 7 to 14 days, there is no data to suggest that such quarantines do anything to significantly limit the spread of COVID-19. Numerous studies testing quarantined students show only a tiny number of positive cases, ranging from 0.2% in Los Angeles, where 30,000 students were quarantined, to 3% in areas with high community transmission such as Missouri.
Portland data is clear that Oregon’s quarantine policy is overkill. Assuming students test positive for COVID at similar rates to those of Multnomah County – a big assumption, considering all the mitigation strategies to prevent transmission at school – that would mean 2,694 of the 2,700 students quarantined so far were negative – a calculation based on the average daily case rate in Multnomah County over the past two months. And that does not take into consideration that nearly all teachers are vaccinated, one of the biggest factors protecting students.
It appears the biggest barrier to implementing a test-to-stay program is lack of tests. That could complicate Gill’s goal that testing be implemented broadly and equitably, so that one part of the state isn’t facing quarantine after quarantine while another part can avoid quarantines because of test availability.
While adopting test-to-stay equitably is important, perpetuating our current inequitable system in the meanwhile is not the answer. Whitman Elementary, a low-income school in southeast Portland, has the highest quarantine rate per student with about 50% of its students having quarantined at some point this fall, due to 11 total cases. Moreover, PPS’s 20 schools with the largest numbers of underserved students have 21% of enrollment but 40% of on-site quarantines, according to our review of district reports and the PPS COVID dashboard. While they also have 34% of cases, this doesn’t change that these quarantines disproportionately affect those students. In addition to lost instruction, these quarantines can mean missed meals and parents missing work. Another large source of potential inequity is what instruction, if any, students receive during quarantine. Working parents or families with few resources often are not able to provide help to keep students on track during absences.
Similar disparities are evident across districts, even within the same county. Reynolds High School, in a highly diverse and low-income Portland metro district, went entirely remote for two weeks due to four confirmed cases. Other high schools in PPS, by contrast, have had more than four cases and stayed in person.
We know these policies are doing active harm by keeping children out of school, while not meaningfully slowing the spread of COVID-19. The state, and county health officials, need to find the urgency to switch quickly to test-to-stay, or risk being one of the last to catch up – again.
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