PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A letter signed by 36 school nurses to Portland Public Schools on Sunday claimed schools in the district are closing because of a surge in COVID-19 cases instead of staffing shortages.

The letter states the district is blaming the closures on teachers who call out sick, rather than supporting the teachers and staff that are sick and having to quarantine. The nurses also said there are not enough nurses or safety measures in the schools to alleviate the number of cases.

“There are so many exposures and cases in PPS schools that, despite our best efforts, the district’s COVID-19 tracking data is woefully behind,” said the nurses. “The result is that the information that PPS leaders are using for decision-making is out of date and inaccurate.”

The preventions strategies in place are undermined by the low up-to-date vaccination rates among the students and the inability to maintain the required 3- and 6-feet social distancing.

“Messaging that schools are safe — without taking the steps to make them safe — does not keep children safe,” PPS nurses said in part.

They are also dealing, at times, with expired test kits, said Mary Johnson, the nurse at Lincoln High School.

“Currently we are overwhelmed in our duties in our COVID response. Tracking data is behind and the reality is the hallways are crowded, the windows are closed on these cold winter days,” Johnson said.

Last week, many districts in the metro area and Vancouver announced schools would be transitioning to remote learning temporarily.

Additionally, PPS said almost 400 teachers were out sick and about 25% of students were also out of the classroom last Tuesday.

In a statement posted to their website, PPS says they continue to rely on public health experts to inform their decisions related to limiting the spread of COVID-19. They listed various measures schools are taking, including providing masks, providing access to vaccines and tests, along with replacing air filters in each school.

“We continue to believe that we must keep as many schools open as possible, while reinforcing, adjusting and strengthening any and all safety measures possible–in real time,” the statement read. “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 says they have strengthened their mitigation efforts in recent weeks, aligning with guidance from Multnomah County, the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education.

“As school district leaders, it is our responsibility to provide a healthy and safe environment for every student and staff member,” the statement said. “We continue to follow public health guidance, adjusting standard operating procedures as needed, and communicating with staff and families quickly about changes as the situation continues to rapidly evolve. We deeply value our school-based colleagues and strive to develop solutions that unite us in a common goal of educating the young scholars of our city.”