PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — During a press conference Friday afternoon, Portland Public Schools officials said the surge in COVID-19 cases linked to the highly contagious omicron variant has hit their campuses, too.

“Despite our best efforts to keep the COVID spread contained on our school campuses, we’re observing — all of us in the broader Portland community — the continued and increasing impact of COVID-19,” said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. “In particular, the omicron variant right now, it’s affecting our school system and that broader community.”

The 2 p.m. press conference followed an announcement Thursday evening that PPS was closing Cleveland and McDaniel High Schools Friday due to COVID-19 absences from both students and staff.

“We consider the closure of our schools to in-person learning and activities to be a measure of last resort,” Guerrero said.

The district announced that 754 students and 169 staff members in the district are currently isolated because of COVID-19.

According to the district’s website, isolation is defined as keeping someone who is sick or tested positive for COVID-19 without symptoms away from others — even in their own home — whereas quarantine is meant to separate someone who was in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

The district has 526 students and 58 staff members in quarantine from off-campus exposures, said Dr. Renard Adams with PPS. Five students and two staff members are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 on PPS campuses, Adams said.

Guerrero said while it’s the district’s goal to keep schools open as much as possible, staffing shortages brought on by the recent surge in cases prevented the schools from remaining open.

“We’re observing that dramatic rise, we’re seeing the increase in reported absences of our students and our staff across our schools this week,” Guerrero said. “In observing the growing number of staff reporting out today… we had to make the necessary decision to close Cleveland and McDaniel High Schools today and transition to distance learning.”

Those high schools will be switching to distance learning starting Monday through at least Jan. 14.

“We believe most children learn better when they’re taught in person, we know that children and families rely on schools to provide a caring and safe environment,” Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education, said 

Gill said these are a few of the reasons why school needs to be held in-person, all day, every day, all year long.

He says, right now that’s the department’s highest priority — but with omicron cases surging, it’s no easy feat.

“Four months into this school year, in-person learning is facing its greatest obstacles,” Gill said.

Speaking to the media today, Gill acknowledged some schools – including three in Portland – have moved temporarily to short-term distance learning because they can’t operate – too many staff are either sick or quarantining. 

His message to families – be prepared — saying it’s inevitable, over the next few weeks, more campuses will temporarily close.

“This will cause challenges for everyone in that school community,” Gill said. “With short notice, families will need to figure out childcare and re-visit online classes, some will lose time from work.”

KOIN 6 News caught up with Peter Brown and his son Julian on Friday — both father and son said online learning last school year was less than ideal.

“It was really rough and it wasn’t fun,” Peter said.

However, Peter says if classrooms at Julian’s school close temporarily, he’ll accept it for what it is.

“It’s better for that to happen than for people to ignore it and get other people sick,” Peter said.

The district did not announce any additional school closures at the conference, but PPS Chief Academic Officer Dr. Cheryl Proctor said classes could be moved to distance learning on a case-by-case or school-by-school basis depending on staffing levels.

Proctor said any return to face-to-face instruction may depend on how many students and staff are testing negative.

Breakfast and lunch will be offered to students while distance learning is taking place, Proctor said.