The Estacada school community is grieving after a longtime middle school teacher died from COVID-19.
On Tuesday, May 11, The Oregonian reported that Samantha Fox died the previous Saturday, a week after testing positive for the virus. She had not been vaccinated.
Fox, 46, had taught in the Estacada School District for more than 20 years. Her most recent role was as a sixth- and seventh-grade language arts and service learning teacher at Estacada Middle School. She is survived by her mother, husband and two teenage sons.
Fox tested positive for the virus on Saturday, May 1. Her last day teaching students on campus was Tuesday, April 27.
Estacada School District Communications Director Maggie Kelly described Fox as "a wonderfully student-focused teacher."
"Multiple generations of students were impacted by her knack for making learning fun," Kelly said.
At the beginning of this week, counselors were available in all school buildings for both students and staff. Counseling sessions on Zoom were also facilitated.
"One teacher who had worked with Sam for a while said she was glad to be in the classroom with students, because Sam also loved being in the classroom," Kelly said.
Estacada Middle School Principal Ben Hargrave praised Fox's ability to connect with students.
"What kind of stands out about her is that she had a specific skill set in building relationships with some of the most vulnerable students," she said. "She had a really great way of coming alongside those kids and giving them the attention they need, the individualized support and making them feel heard and valued. I'm really going to miss that."
Hargrave noted that the support of the district's crisis response team has been helpful for the middle school.
"The immediacy of Sam's passing was really shocking," he said. "Our counselors did a great job for both students and staff, and just being present around the building. Multiple district office people were in our hallways checking in, taking over if a teacher needed a break."
Many people, both students and staff, have been impacted by Fox's death.
"There's times where I'll visit with a staff member who seems to be doing OK at the moment, but you can just tell that there's that hurt, and they're grieving," Hargrave said.
During the Thursday, May 13, school board meeting, Estacada School District Superintendent Ryan Carpenter praised employees for their resilience.
"These are really tough times for our school district and our employees, and they continue to each and every single day report for duty and be ready to serve our kids with love and compassion," he said, also praising Fox for her service in the district.
Teaching during a pandemic
Heather Treanor, an English teacher at Estacada High School and president of the Estacada Education Association, said she hopes to see changes in the way the district handles pandemic safety.
"The real question will be what changes with the district moving forward. (The union) wants to see enforcement of (The Oregon Department of Education's) requirements," Treanor said.
The Estacada School District will participate in a voluntary audit of its COVID-19 safety and contact tracking procedures. The review will be conducted by the Clackamas Education Service District.
"We are confident that our safety protocols are excellent and are working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. We are looking forward to having an additional set of eyes that verify or make suggestions of areas that we can continue to improve to ensure best-in-class safety protocols and procedures," Kelly said.
During the May 13 school board meeting, Carpenter said the highest scoring item on the district's employee engagement survey was "my principal or supervisor demonstrates a genuine concern for my welfare," with 58% of respondents marking this item as five out of five. Of the district's 239 employees, 236 responded to the survey.
"I do believe that if our adults were not feeling safe and not feeling cared for, this would be represented in this specific score," Carpenter said. "The data that we're looking at is telling us that our protocols, and the Ready School Safe Learners guidance that we're required to follow, (are) having a positive impact."
Estacada schools moved to a hybrid model in late January and early February. In April, all middle and high school students who wished to were able to begin attending four days of in-person learning. At the district's two elementary schools, some students attend in-person full time, though a majority remain in the hybrid model.
Prior to entering school buildings, students complete a health screening. The district also instituted a "Parent Pledge," which has parents confirm that their students are not symptomatic prior to arriving on campus.
Masks are required, and signs and stickers help students with social distancing. Additionally, prior to the start of hybrid learning, district leaders also created videos about COVID-19 protocols with student actors.
Per ODE and CDC guidelines, Estacada schools moved from six feet of social distancing space between students to three feet in some instances on Monday, March 22. According to ODE's "Ready Schools, Safe Learners" guidelines, elementary schools should "support physical distancing in all daily activities and instruction, maintaining at least three feet between students to the maximum extent possible." For activities like physical education and eating lunch, students have six feet of distance between them. Additionally, guidelines call for six feet of distance between staff and students.
At the secondary level, the same guidelines apply, but ODE notes that if the county case rate exceeds 200 per 100,000 people, there should be six feet of distance between students. However, the guidelines also state that if schools have met the requirements to start operating and metrics later reach a more restrictive threshold, schools are not required to make the shift from three feet to six feet.
According to data from the Oregon Health Authority, during the week of March 22, when Estacada Schools moved to three feet of distance, Clackamas County had a case rate of 108.2 cases per 100,000 people. From the weeks of April 12 through May 5, Clackamas County has had case rates higher than 200 cases per 100,000 people.
Union expresses concerns
Estacada School District leaders have stated they plan to begin the 2021-22 school year with in-person learning, if that is possible with the most recent COVID-19 safety guidelines.
But Treanor said the district's facilities are not conducive to safe learning during a pandemic. The average Estacada school building is more than 50 years old, and voters said no to capital improvement bonds in 2016 and 2020. A bond passed in 2000 facilitated the building of Clackamas River Elementary School and updates at other schools; conversely, Estacada High School was built in 1962.
"The district has pushed for a full reopening, but our buildings weren't designed for a pandemic. We're running into structural barriers," Treanor said.
She explained that some classrooms don't have windows, or windows that open.
Kelly noted that ionization units have been added to the HVAC system in the district buildings. Reports on the number of hourly air exchanges in each building are available on the district's website.
Treanor also expressed concern about capacity and space to facilitate social distancing, noting that it's difficult for students at the high school to maintain the appropriate distance during passing periods. She added that with secondary students on campus four days a week, some classrooms are close to capacity.
Additionally, Treanor noted union members have asked for notification whenever there is a positive COVID-19 case in the building where they teach.
Kelly said whenever there is a positive case in the district, a contact tracing system is used to determine who may have come into close contact with the infected individual. As part of the system, staff and students scan into any room they enter.
"We see who all has been in contact and call each person who may have been exposed, and go through our quarantine FAQ," she said.
She added that if a person was not exposed to the individual who tested positive, they are able to see the number of positive cases in each school building on the district's COVID-19 dashboard, launched in December.
Treanor expressed concerns about the accuracy of the information on the dashboard.
"For example, the total number of cases might say five, but I know at the high school alone there had been more than five cases that week," she said.
Kelly said the COVID-19 dashboard is updated every business day, as well as on weekends as needed.
"We had some Excel spreadsheet reporting errors early on, but they've since been fixed," she said. "By the time cases spiked, we had already troubleshooted. We're very confident in the data that's been reported."
Nancy Willard, an administrator on the "Oregon For a Safe Return to Campus" Facebook group and former special education teacher and lawyer, said she has received concerns from staff members in Estacada about the district's COVID-19 dashboard being up-to-date, classrooms being over capacity and staff being informed when there is a positive case in their building.
Willard noted that she's heard similar concerns from teachers across Oregon, and not just Estacada.
"It seems to be across the board," she said.
Kelly noted that the Estacada School District has a safety committee that responds to concerns as they arise. Through that committee, the district was able to get rapid COVID-19 tests for any student or staff who may become symptomatic during the school day.
Treanor said union members want clear specifications of when the district would move to comprehensive distance learning because of rising COVID-19 cases.
"The district hasn't been transparent about when we would shut down for two weeks to stop the spread. We just had a staff member die. We need to ensure that tragedy like this doesn't happen again," she said.
Kelly said the district is working in coordination with Clackamas County Public Health to make determinations about moving back to distance learning. She noted that per guidelines from the health department and the Oregon Department of Education, if the district isn't seeing significant transmission of the virus on campus, it should not move to distance learning.
"We're going to follow the advice of the experts," Kelly added.
According to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, 16 students and one staff member tested positive for the virus during the week of May 10. For that same time period, 196 students and 15 staff members were in quarantine. Since the start of the school year, 26 students and 23 staff members have tested positive, and 284 students and 75 staff have quarantined.
At Estacada Middle School, where Fox taught, nine students and four staff members have tested positive, and one staff member and 65 staff members were in quarantine as of Wednesday, May 12.
Kelly said no students or staff tested positive after contact with Fox, nor was she exposed to a positive individual prior to her positive test.
"Our district has a high level of contact tracing and quarantine procedures that are in place, and has no record at this point of any on-campus spread of the COVID-19 virus," school leaders wrote in an announcement to parents, also noting that they would not "comment on privacy-protected information such as health records or cause of death unless it is in complete alignment with the family's wishes and expressed to us directly."
Treanor said union leaders have not yet determined if they will file a grievance, an official complaint about a potential contract violation.
"We're evaluating options for what we can do. The focus is on staff and student safety," she said. "The first step is to get the district to address our concerns and then go from there."