Hood River County School Board Jan. 12

HRCSD Superintendent Rich Polkinghorn shares current COVID-19 surge information at the Jan. 12 board meeting.

HOOD RIVER — COVID-19, and the fast-moving omicron variant, was the focus of Hood River County School District Superintendent Rich Polkinghorn’s opening communication at the Jan. 12 school board meeting.

His primary message: Student access to in-person instruction is under threat, and to keep kids in school, the district needs community support to mitigate the spread of infection.

“While early data indicates that the omicron variant may result in less severe disease than previous variants, it is increasingly clear that the omicron variant spreads much more quickly and easily than all previous variants,” he said.

The district is taking a “layered” approach to mitigation — symptom screening, training and education, cleaning and disinfection, hand washing, airflow and circulation, COVID-19 testing, cohorting, physical distancing, face coverings and COVID-19 vaccinations.

“The virus can pass through one or two layers, but not all,” Polkinghorn said. “That’s why every layer matters and every layer helps keep students in class.”

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has continued to emphasize the importance and strict adherence to these layered protocols, he said. The district has fully implemented these protocols since returning students to classrooms.

“Our data tells us that the risk of COVID transmission is nearly zero in the school setting, this is because schools are a managed setting,” Polkinghorn said. “In the general community, without protocols in place, is where rapid transmission is taking place.”

OHA recently shared with state superintendents that, based on emerging experiences in other countries, states and school districts, Oregon can expect rapid transmission of the omicron variant in indoor settings where people ignore masking requirements and other safety protocols. Current modeling shows the current surge continuing through February.

“It is this potential impact on our ability to staff our schools and departments that has my administration building contingency plans, in the event we are not able to operationalize school,” Polkinghorn said. “This could be something like a bus driver shortage, but it could also mean that so many key staff members are out of school due to COVID illness that we cannot provide adequate supervision and/or instruction. I’m sure you have all seen that several schools and districts across the state have already announced a return to remote learning. This is a potential for Hood River County School District as well, but it is a last resort.”

Contingency plans are in place in the event HRCSD does return to short-term remote leaning, whether that is one building or district-wide.

“If we can operate schools, we will, but I want the board and our community to know that short-term remote learning is a possibility,” he said. These plans would mirror previous online learning schedules; if implemented, information will be distributed to families via schools.

Polkinghorn also addressed co-curricular activities — or extracurriculars — and the need to maintain vigilant with layered mitigation strategies to continue participation.

“This includes continuing to follow and enforce the OHA-mandated indoor masking rules for students and guests, cohort teams when feasible to reduce possible exposure across programs, limit attendees for larger events, including tournaments, multi-team competitions and district events, limit spectators to allow for increased physical distancing, limit extra contact events, especially indoors, including fundraising events, parties/team dinners, parent meetings and award ceremonies, and provide extra signage, had washing stations and masks for those attending events,” he said.

“Please do your part to mitigate the spread of COVID,” he added in a message to the community at large. “Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear your mask when indoors, wash your hands, practice social distancing and stay home if you are sick.”

Board members were in favor of keeping students in classrooms and echoed the need for community support.

“I don’t want to get to the point where we’re closing schools proactively based on the fear of a model forecast because that may never come to fruition,” said Board Member Jen Kelly during board comment at the end of the meeting. “I think the risks of going online are greater than the risks of the virus at this point, given the tools that we have to deal with it and the safety precautions that we put in place.”

“I want to thank all the staff — teachers, administration, transportation, food services, maintenance — everybody for working so hard to keep the schools open,” Board Member Brandi Sheppard said. “We want to continue to be open and not go into distance learning if we don’t have to … We really want to stay with students in schools, so I’m hoping that we can continue with that.”

Board Vice-Chair Julia Garcia-Ramirez reiterated the district needs community support to continue with in-person classes. “Just a friendly reminder to our community to please continue to wear their face coverings and continue to take necessary precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and especially the new variant, omicron — we have to keep our students safe, our community safe from this virus. And with it, we will help students to continue to have in person classes. Our kids want it, our kids deserve it — it’s a community effort.”

“We can talk about what the school district has to do, but a lot of it depends on what our community does,” said Board Member Dr. Corinda Hankins Elliott. “Our community has to do their job at keeping our whole community safe by using those mitigation factors outside of school as well as their kids and our staff inside of school ... It’s not just about us. It’s not all our decisions. We all as a community have to accept responsibility keeping our kids in school. And that means our community as a group has to do those things.”

Said Board Chair Chrissy Reitz, “I’m going to just play on what Jen and Corinda and everybody else said, we want to keep our kids in school but this is where our community comes into play. It is not just a board decision. It’s not just administration. We need to work as a community to keep our kids in school. It is shown scientifically that if you get vaccinated, if you get boosted, if you wear masks, if you social distance, if you do all of those mitigations we can keep our kids in school. But it takes everybody.”