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COVID-19 school closures spark bullying in GAPS

COVID-19 school closures spark bullying in GAPS

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Students at Albany's two largest high schools knew just who to blame after an outbreak of COVID-19 shut down athletics for two weeks earlier this month: each other. 

At least three cases of COVID-19 have been traced to a local gathering at a home where at least 19 students from West Albany, South Albany and Lebanon high schools mingled without masks. The incident set off closures around the Albany school district and paused school sports after some families did not cooperate with public health officials to trace the cases. 

"I want to make sure it's clear," Greater Albany Public Schools Superintendent Melissa Goff said on Monday. "The concern was the number of potential students and staff who may have been exposed but us not knowing the level of exposure because we didn't have all the answers around that contact tracing."

Goff said that given the lack of information on who could have been exposed, she opted not to have groups of people together for the standard 14-day quarantine period to avoid further spread. 

"If people are angry, they should be angry with me," she said. 

But students have been posting photos of each other and trading accusations about who knew what about their exposure and virus status to the point that the principals of both Albany high schools stepped in to release statements about bullying. 

The two student representatives assigned to the district's school board raised the issue with the board as well, noting that students were upset about their photos being posted online. 

COVID-19 cases have been rising around the country, state and region. In Oregon, it's prevented students from returning to school in the traditional sense, although some activities have been allowed under state exceptions. Sports are allowed in limited capacities, and students with special educational needs or without access to the internet can be brought into classrooms in specific ways as well. 

However, state mandates require that all in-person activities cease once a positive COVID-19 case can be traced back to the school. 

Goff warned the School Board on Monday that cases could keep rising and said the bullying that accompanied the incident last month was unacceptable.

"There's no excuse for being mean or taking a situation where people are vulnerable and taking advantage of that either for humor, entertainment or just because others are doing it," she said. 

Goff went on to say that she understood people were upset when sports were postponed. 

"I think people shifted anger about being in a pandemic into a situation (where) they could blow off steam, but that came at the expense of other human beings."

SAHS Principal John Hunter released a video that incorporated a joint message released with WAHS Principal Susie Orsborn. 

"Recently we had some positive COVID cases of students that were traced back to a party. We want to be clear that bullying and harassing anyone, for any reason is not OK," the statement read. "We do not condone, nor will we tolerate bullying of any of our students in class or on social media. We need to get through these tough times together, and we only do this by being kind and supportive of each other. If you or a friend is being bullied please let a school staff person know, and if you see it happening, please stand up for what is right."

Goff took the opportunity to remind the community on Monday that following basic instructions from public health officials could prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and get kids back into classes. 

"The message I would love for them to take away is taking responsibility for themselves," she said. "You're your own best protection or maybe protection for your coach or a friend. If you just wore a mask, it would be one more layer of protection."

She also asked that those in the GAPS community who do contract the virus work with local public health officials on contact tracing.

"I don't know everyone understands the value," she said of tracing efforts. "It's important because as soon as we know a school hasn't been impacted, that school can start back up." 

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Greater Albany Public Schools board member Pat Eastman offered his resignation Monday night after the district's scheduled meeting. 

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