Portland Public Schools may soon announce how it will return students to classrooms. But there won’t be many. And it won’t happen until late January at the earliest.
The district and the union representing its teachers is close to a deal over working conditions for educators who will provide in-person instruction next year, nearly 10 months after Gov. Kate Brown ordered the state’s public schools to close their doors.
District and union negotiators have settled on several aspects of their agreement to offer what the Oregon Department of Education classifies as limited in-person instruction, essentially teaching certain students designated to need in-person learning for up to two hours a day.
District officials have declined to say which students will take priority for in-person instruction.
Administrators have in the past said sixth-graders and high school freshmen — in other words, students transitioning to a new school structure and environment — high schoolers who need to make up credits and younger children who require literacy and special education supports top the list. District leaders have also said they’ll prioritize Black, Indigenous and other students of color in order to avoid further widening existing disparities in academic outcomes for those groups.
But class sizes have remained a particularly prickly topic during negotiations. District officials want to cap the number of students per classroom session at 20, the maximum allowed under state guidelines. Union representatives are pushing for a limit of 14.
Educators say they fear pairing too many children with one teacher means educators would spend more time enforcing social distancing rules and keeping students on task than teaching.
“It’s not a situation that will lead to anything useful in terms of education for kids,” Emily Markewitz, who teaches third grade at Vernon Elementary, said.
District officials contend that few classrooms would be able to accommodate 20 students, anyway — state guidelines require desks to be spaced so each pupil has 35 square feet of personal space to maintain social distancing.
Instead, Chief of Schools Shawn Bird said, administrators want to use common areas like cafeterias to provide venues for credit recovery classes or tech troubleshooting. Lowering the maximum might inadvertently bar Portland Public Schools from offering such services, Bird said, some of which the district already provides at Roosevelt High and Pioneer School.
Otherwise, the caps wouldn’t apply to many classroom spaces aside from some larger areas, like one at Wilson High that features folding room dividers that can be used as partitions, that might be able to fit 20 students for in-person instruction.
“But very few of those rooms exist,” Bird said.
Union negotiators said their concerns center around classroom management and proper ventilation. And, union President Elizabeth Thiel said, she and other educators worry about enforcing social distancing and mask wearing protocols when students leave their classrooms, such as when they must go to the bathroom or at the start and end of the school day.
“When our schools are fully utilized, they are bustling workplaces that are more closely clustered than other workplaces I can think of,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Still, tensions rose repeatedly during bargaining sessions as educators repeatedly likened the amount of policing they’d have to do for mask wearing, distancing and handwashing
, to babysitting.
“It’s not like we’re trying to cram as many bodies as possible in a classroom and have a babysitter. That is not accurate,” Brian Hungerford, the district’s labor lawyer, said.
Apart from the size of student cohorts, union and district negotiators have largely agreed on several aspects of the limited in-person agreement.
Educators won’t be required to return to teach in classrooms but instead will take on in-person instruction duties on a volunteer basis, both sides say. Portland Public Schools will first ask for staff volunteers, then hire substitutes to backfill open slots.
The bargaining teams also agree on language that allows teachers who volunteer for in-person instruction to first tour the classrooms they’ll be teaching in and have time to prepare in-person lessons after accepting the assignment.
Portland Public Schools will provide personal protective equipment, although district officials and union negotiators were sometimes split on what some of those items should be.
At the outset of a Dec. 13 bargaining session, union negotiators presented a draft proposal of an agreement that listed N-95 masks as required. District officials pushed back after consulting with pediatricians.
The masks are typically reserved for medical professionals who spend substantial time with COVID patients, particularly when performing close contact interactions like intubations. The masks are also uncomfortable to wear for long stretches and require fitting sessions. Disposable face masks coupled with shields also provide similar levels of protection, the pediatricians said.
“We’re not against providing N-95s. We think it may be really, really challenging to do so in large quantities,” Sharon Reese, the district’s head of human resources, told negotiators.
The two parties struck the item from the tentative agreement and moved on after union negotiators deferred to the judgment of the medical professionals.
“We’re a small operation,” Thiel said. “We don’t have on staff a resident health adviser. We’re relying on the collective expertise of our members.”
The exchange over N-95 masks was illustrative of the general tone of the negotiations, with negotiators on both sides pushing and pulling, generally in an amicable tone.
Even though district and union negotiators largely agree on terms, Portland Public Schools faces two major hurdles in its ability to offer in-person instruction, particularly at large scale.
For one, coronavirus infections in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties are nearly five times what the Oregon Department of Education will allow for a broad return of elementary students to district classrooms.
State officials require infection rates to fall below 100 per 100,000 residents and test positivity in counties to reach no more than 8% for two consecutive weeks for that to happen. If infections fall below 50 residents per 100,000 and test positivity is below 5%, the district can offer in-person instruction to students of every grade level.
The Department of Education doesn’t have guidelines for when a district can and should offer limited in-person instruction for students with acute needs for academic support. Instead, the agency merely suggests districts should begin phasing students out of classrooms if infections hit 200 per 100,000 residents.
Should the three metro-area counties fall below that threshold, Portland Public Schools Chief of Systems Performance Russell Brown said, the district would enact whatever agreement it reaches with the union for those students.
As of Wednesday, Multnomah County’s infection count for the last two weeks was 498. In Clackamas County, it was 470. In Washington, 480.
And largely owing to those numbers, few educators feel safe enough to come back to classrooms.
A survey of teachers commissioned by the union showed only about 14% were currently willing to provide in-person instruction. If the metro area were to reach 200 infections per 100,000 residents, the share willing to return would go up slightly to 16%.
About one-third of educators also said they have a pre-existing condition that puts them in an at-risk group for coronavirus. And about 43% said they live with or care for someone in an at-risk group.
“I hope the district is aware of just how many people are not medically appropriate to fill the positions,” union consultant John Berkey said.
All told, of the 2,000 educators who answered the survey, fewer than 250 said they felt comfortable returning to a classroom. Union representatives said Portland Public Schools could reliably count on double that number to volunteer given the survey reached half its membership.
“That’s the pool you can reasonably expect to volunteer,” Lincoln High social sciences teacher Steve Lancaster said.
District officials said they would be able to make do with that number.
Thiel, the union president, told The Oregonian/OregonLive she feels a deal is close. She also said the agreement over limited in-person instruction will likely serve as a template for when infection rates and test positivity fall to a level that will allow Portland Public Schools to offer hybrid instruction more broadly.
“I think it makes sense to start putting those things in place at a smaller scale first,” she said.
Although members of both bargaining committees struck an upbeat tone at the end of their mid-December negotiations, the bargaining session was peppered with educators’ and administrators’ frustrations that, even with a vaccine on the horizon, there’s much uncertainty surrounding how infection rates will fluctuate in the coming weeks and when life might return to anything resembling normal.
“I think we still keep working toward a point in time when, hopefully, we can have kids back in school,” Hungerford, the district labor lawyer, said. “We’re still seeing this as a little ways off but we want to continue our dialogue for a time when we’re ready.”
Eder is The Oregonian’s education reporter. Do you have a tip about Portland Public Schools? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.