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Oregon schools are reopening, but some students feel safer at home
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Story by Courtney Vaughn, Portland Tribune - Story Source
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  EDUCATION  
 
Years of maintenance issues within Portland schools have brewed mistrust of safety measures for COVID-19

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A year after schools across Oregon closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland schools now are rushing to prepare classrooms for a return to in-person learning.

But not everyone is ready to go back to school.

Danny Cage, a sophomore at Grant High School, said as a student of color with underlying health issues, he doesn't feel safe attending school in person yet.

"I'm high risk and I have people in my house who are high risk," the teen said. "Even if I'm not sick, it's not safe to bring that back to anyone in my house."

Statistically, communities of color have an increased risk of complications or death from COVID-19. That's largely due to what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to as "long-standing systemic health and social inequities."

Grant High School is one of the most modernized schools in the district. It reopened in fall 2019 after undergoing a major remodel, but Cage points to numerous other campuses that are aging and have limited ventilation.

As reported by the Portland Tribune in 2019, schools like Chief Joseph Elementary had documented elevated carbon dioxide levels and a lack of ventilation. The latest facility condition assessment report for all PPS buildings indicates nearly $203M is needed in heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades alone.

Years of deferred maintenance at many PPS sites has led to distrust among many teachers and parents.

"Everyone wants to see kids back in classrooms, but what constitutes "safe' means something different when your community is at higher risk when it comes to getting sick and dying from Covid," Rashelle Chase, one of the organizers of a rally pushing for a safer, more equitable approach to reopening schools, said. "We know at the best of times our kids are in schools that lack soap and hot water for handwashing, where windows don't open to support ventilation, where classrooms aren't cleaned regularly."

Cage said the thought of going back to a closed room for hours at a time with several other students irks him.

"Many of the people who say, "oh, it's safe, we have ventilation in our schools,' those are predominantly white schools," Cage said. "I go to school with 2,000 students, so how are we going to be able to reach social distancing guidelines? If everyone's back-to-back in the hallway, that doesn't feel safe."

The Portland Public Schools district has announced the addition of HEPA filters in every classroom, along with ventilation inspections and increased airflow. The district also has promised to have a school nurse or health assistant at every school site, extra cleaning and disinfection and notes that teachers have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine since late January.

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