Portland School Nurses Blame Closures on Lack of COVID Protocols, Not Staff Shortages

A letter signed by three dozen school nurses and sent Sunday to Oregon's Portland Public Schools (PPS) said the district's school closures are due to a lack of COVID-19 protocols amid surges and not the fault of teachers calling in sick.

The open letter said PPS has blamed staff shortages for the closure of several schools in the area but called out these claims, saying, "These statements are blaming teachers for taking sick time."

"Schools are short staffed because so many educators are sick or quarantined, or have families of their own to care for who are sick. Teachers should be supported rather than blamed," the letter said.

Margaret Calvert, the regional superintendent who oversees the district's high schools, announced the temporary closure of several high schools in a statement to The Oregonian over a week ago. "Where we cannot offer sufficient staffing to continue on-site instruction in a safe environment, we will have to implement temporary distance learning until we can reopen," she said.

School closures in Portland, Oregon, are due to a lack of COVID-19 protocols and not because of staff shortages, school nurses said in a letter. Above, a child holds a sign from a protester's car in Chicago on August 3, 2020. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The letter to PPS described the conditions in the schools that remain open. It said that "the reality is that the classrooms and hallways are crowded, windows are closed, HEPA filters are too few, masking is not of medical grade, children are testing positive at a rate that is too fast to track, the tests provided are expired, and staffing in every department is stretched too thin."

The letter added, "This greatly concerns us as hospitalizations of children are rising dramatically in states affected earlier than Oregon by the Omicron wave."

The Oregon Health Authority reported last Friday a total of 8,672 new cases and 871 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state. With the Omicron variant raging throughout the country and staff shortages hitting various types of business, Oregon posted last week a 486 percent rise in infections over the past two weeks.

The letter to PPS stated that the schools are "experiencing the worst outbreak of disease since the onset of the pandemic."

The 36 nurses who signed the letter insisted that they are struggling to "keep up with the positive COVID cases in our schools."

The letter asked for the PPS leadership to listen to nurses, educators and administrators when they say that the schools are not safe to operate as they normally would. The blaming of teachers and educators for missing school days should be stopped, the letter added.

"Messaging that schools are safe—without taking the steps to make them safe—does not keep children safe," the letter said.

PPS Media Relations released a statement last week in response to the letter. It said about one-third of the signed names are not assigned to a PPS school.

"Data show that our schools are among the safest places for students—with layered and controlled health and safety strategies like universal masking, vaccination and boosters and regular COVID-19 testing," PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia said in the statement.

When Newsweek reached out to PPS for comment, it was forwarded the statement.

Update 1/24/2022, 9:10 a.m. ET: This story was updated with a statement from PPS Media Relations.

PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia