UMATILLA COUNTY — Sarah House had just gotten her second vaccine when her teammate on the Pendleton High School tennis team tested positive for COVID-19.
A week before, the team had been riding the bus together. She said at least 12 of her teammates were forced to quarantine — and just before districts.
“There were only like five people that went” to districts, said House, 16. “And it’s because they were vaccinated or they weren’t on the bus.“
Because House and her sister, Emma, just had gotten the shot, they didn’t have to quarantine. But one of her best friends did, and it was strange to be at school without her.
“It was just weird because we have a lot of the same classes,” House said. “So she didn’t come to school and she had to go online, which is weird, because I was used to her being there.”
As schools continue to grapple with the pandemic, with outbreaks sending students briefly back to their homes to isolate, students face the question of whether or not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Health officials say vaccines — which are becoming more widely available for youth — are the best bet to keep students in school and to all but ensure a safe and normal fall 2021 semester.
“I do encourage students to get the vaccine,” said Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock, the liaison to the health department. “It will certainly change the picture and very likely help them for next year with respect to participation in athletics, let alone wearing masks. My guess is that the more of our young people who are vaccinated, probably the more freedom and flexibility they’ll experience in the fall of 2021.”
But with some students and families still skeptical of the shot, school districts are navigating a fine line between safety, education and families’ individual choice.
“It’s trying to be neutral and respect the rights of individual choice,” said Pendleton School Superintendent Chris Fritsch, who refrained from formally encouraging students to get vaccinated, saying the decision should be left to families. “But again, part of that is — with those choices could potentially come consequences.”
Schools report cases
According to the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly outbreak report, Umatilla County schools reported 71 student cases and 32 staff cases since the beginning of April, the first full month most county schools began offering in-person classes again.
State reports show a total of 21 students in the Hermiston School District tested positive for COVID-19, spread across six of its schools. Superintendent Tricia Mooney said based on the limited information the county health department gives the school district, it appears the virus isn’t spreading through classrooms once one student falls ill.
“I think our precautions and safety measures are working, definitely,” she said.
In all, 21 schools in Umatilla County, including middle and high school, reported cases since April, according to the state. Though most of those schools were from the Pendleton and Hermiston area, cases also were reported in Stanfield, Umatilla and Milton-Freewater.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on May 12 announced its largest COVID spike in months — 14 new cases over the previous two weeks, with 12 cases coming from schoolchildren. The uptick prompted tribal officials to cancel events and immediately schedule a vaccine clinic for youth at Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center that same weekend.
Many of the cases at schools are being traced back to extracurricular activities, such as sports, according to Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara. In recent months, a soccer team, dance team and football team in Pendleton and Hermiston high schools all had to quarantine because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
But it does not appear these cases are leading to infection spreading broadly throughout schools, said Fiumara. Nearly all of the county schools that had reported cases since the beginning of April reported single-digit totals, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Quarantined after cases; vaccines can help, officials say
In the Umatilla School District, about 100 students quarantined across all three of the district’s schools when a sibling group got sick, according to Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe.
Cases reported have so far appeared to come from exposures students had outside the classroom, she said, an indicator masks, social distancing and other safety measures were working.
Fritsch in Pendleton said quarantining is a major issue because it interrupts students’ learning.
“I don’t see any way around that,” he said, “and I don’t know that, in any future guidance, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch that we’re going to have to exclude people that are sick from school.”
Fiumara said the vaccine provides schools with much-needed protection that will lead to fewer outbreaks, adding “when classes shut down due to an uptick, it affects students whether they are sick or not.”
The federal government cleared the way for the Pfizer vaccine’s use among youths ages 12-15 on May 12. Since then, youth vaccinations have increased in the county. On May 21, the health department reported 382 people under the age of 18 had been vaccinated. Four days later, that number jumped to 653. And on June 3, the health department reported 801 children and minors had been vaccinated, or 3.5% of all vaccinated people in Umatilla County.
In addition, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, which opened vaccine clinics to students in late March to curb school outbreaks before in-person classes began, reported 445 juveniles under the age of 18 have been vaccinated as of June 4.
“I think it’s going to be really big coming into the fall when everybody is expecting and hoping that everything goes back to school in a normal fashion,” Fiumara said of the Pfizer vaccine now being available for youth.
As the superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, Mark Mulvihill often acts as a liaison between school districts in Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties and the state education system. Mulvihill said local schools have managed individual cases well, but he was disappointed by the county’s vaccination rate, which for months has ranked among the lowest statewide. While schools have remained open despite the outbreaks, students’ educations still are affected when they are forced to quarantine due to an exposure.
Mulvihill said he foresees this continuing to happen until residents take the necessary steps.
“Getting the vaccine is the way to end the pandemic,” he said.
Mulvihill said he’s heard plenty of chatter about what kind of rules the Oregon Department of Education could have in store for next year. But one idea that hasn’t been introduced to the table is a vaccine requirement.
Vaccines become contentious
For some students, the topic of vaccines has become contentious.
Muriel Jones-Hoisington, a 17-year-old three-sport athlete at Pendleton High School, says her friends sometimes argue about the COVID-19 vaccine.
She wanted to get the shot at first. But then she learned some people got sick even after being vaccinated. From May 3-31, 2% of Oregonians who had tested positive for COVID-19 had been fully vaccinated, according to state data.
She grew skeptical — like she wasn’t getting the full picture. Her family has voiced skepticism, too, she said. And when she’d bring up the topic with friends, they would bicker.
“It was really odd to me, because they were like, ‘I don’t want to get made fun of for getting a vaccination,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s your opinion. You shouldn’t really get made fun of. That shouldn’t stop you from doing what you want to do.’”
Now, universities statewide are requiring vaccinations for fall term. And vaccinated people are allowed to do things that unvaccinated people can’t. She said she feels like her right to choose is being taken away.
“Everyone has their own options,” she said. “They can pick and choose what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. And that’s just a human’s right, to choose what you want to do. It makes me upset that people feel the need to make other people’s decisions, and not fully understand why they got it.”
For Hoisington, who wants to be a nurse, she needs more time before she decides whether or not to get the vaccine. She wants to see more data. She wants schools to educate students and hold discussions about the shot, allowing for a common ground with different perspectives.
“I feel like it’s good to talk about this stuff, instead of holding it in,” she said. “I feel like you have to give both views of both sides. Why these people are getting it, and why they aren’t getting it.”
House, who is vaccinated, also said she believes people should have the right to choose whether or not they get the shot. Though she believes the vaccines are safe and effective, she understands how the politics and rapid development of the shot have driven people away, and she doesn’t like how universities are requiring that students get vaccinated.
“I think that waiting is a choice,” she said. “That’s based on your own health and your own thoughts about it. And I think politics were surrounding it, which I think is kind of annoying. That shouldn’t be guiding the health of people.”
But if a vaccine means returning to a normal school year, House is all for vaccinations.
“I’d say, please do it,” she said. “I just want to go to school, and I want to have a normal year next year. And I know that it’s not going to be totally normal, but I would love it if we could do that.”