PORTLAND, Ore. — One year ago, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced schools would have to close due to COVID-19.
Now, the governor’s executive order is mandating that schools will have to offer hybrid or full in-person instruction for K-5 students by the week of March 29 and 6-12 students by the week of April 19.
Early Monday morning, Portland Public Schools (PPS), the state's largest school district, reached a tentative agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) to start hybrid learning in April, according to a release from the district.
- April 1: Preschool through first grade
- April 5: Grades 2-5
- April 19: Grades 6-12
Parents who want their children to finish the school year in online distance learning will have that option, the district said in a statement. The agreement must still be approved by PAT and the PPS Board of Education. That vote is expected to happen by the middle of this week.
"I am grateful that as a result of these discussions, as well as the input and feedback from families, we have a strong plan for safely returning students to schools," said PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. "Our teams have been diligent, thoughtful and thorough in planning for the reopening of our schools. It is now time to welcome our students back in larger numbers."
On Friday, some PPS teachers held a demonstration ahead of a rally that was planned for 3 p.m. Saturday at the district's headquarters. They posted up outside PPS headquarters, then taught their online classes like they normally would, all to express their concerns regarding school reopening and calling into question the district’s preparedness to return to in-person learning.
“We want to support our parents that feel like they need safety options,” said Beyoung Yu, who is both a PPS teacher and a parent.
Yu is one of the parents across the state of Oregon who have questions and concerns about reopening. KGW decided to take those questions to Oregon’s largest school district: Portland Public Schools.
Question: What is the district doing about ventilation in buildings?
“We still have windows that don’t open. We’re still finding dirty air filters. We’re still seeing a lot of problems that concern us from a safety standpoint,” Yu said.
PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein said from the moment the district started making plans to bring staff and students back into buildings, proper ventilation has been a primary concern. She said a certified industrial hygienist made a checklist to assess ventilation systems at each school prior to reopening, then upgrades and repairs were made based on the checklist done for each school.
“We’ve made multiple enhancements to building ventilation and air filtration along with securing portable, HEPA filtered air purifiers for every classroom, administration, or operational space,” said Werstein in an e-mail.
“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends the use of these medical-grade HEPA filters to remove dust, bacteria, and other small particles, including unseen virus particles from the air,” she said.
In addition, Werstein said every PPS building will follow the new ventilation standard operating procedure, which meets requirements of the CDC, Multnomah County Health Department, Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Agency.
Parents have also brought up concerns regarding rooms in aging buildings without working windows. Werstein said custodians are currently working to get inoperable windows open.
“If they are unable to, there is still airflow and ventilation in the rooms. All classrooms will be provided a stand alone HEPA air purifier. Opening windows is one part of the ventilation process, but not the only option,” said Werstein.
KGW asked if there were rooms that share the same air and if so, if there were a COVID case, would two groups of students have to quarantine. Werstein said no.
Question: What about staffing?
“We need more custodians to do the work in a pandemic, and we need more nurses, and we need more counselors to address the social-emotional needs of students,” Yu said.
Werstein said PPS has hired 31 additional social workers to help kids with emotional and mental health needs as they transition back to in-person instruction.
Yu is still concerned. He said prior to the pandemic, counselors would be responsible for helping several hundred kids.
“If you’re talking about one counselor for several hundred kids and you’ve only hired 31 social workers […] that still wouldn’t get anywhere near to the social-emotional needs of students,” said Yu.
According to Werstein, each school has a nurse or a school health assistant on the premises. Health assistants don't have a license, but provide illness and injury management for students with oversight from a registered nurse.
As far as custodial staff, Werstein said there has not been an increase in the number of custodians, but that custodial teams feel confident they’ll be able to get the job done. Right now, the district has 307 of 312 custodial positions filled. Until all positions are full, PPS plans to use contractors to fill the gap.
Other questions include whether PPS has considered outdoor learning spaces, if teachers will have enough time to prepare their own lives for going back to in-person teaching as well as any changes to curriculum, and if the district is considering having cameras and microphones in the classroom so students who are distance learning can participate similarly to in-person students.
On Friday, Werstein said PPS was still in talks with the teachers union and trying to work out those details.
Concerns regarding distance learning
Meantime, while there are concerns about in-person learning, other parents are worried about how distance learning for the kids might change.
Glyness Dean is mom to three daughters. They live in a multi-generational household. Dean's two youngest children are still in school, and she’s worried about the possibility that the teachers her daughters have had all year will be switched out for a substitute teacher -- something she said will be particularly difficult on her youngest child.
“It’s very disappointing," said Dean. "We’re in this position where we’re all faced with really hard choices for our family, being a multigenerational and shared parent houses, we really can’t take our kids back into school. But now we’re facing this choice of keeping our families safe or risking the quality of our children’s education of the last five weeks of the school year."
KGW brought Dean's concerns to PPS. Werstein said the district is doing everything it can to keep students with their teachers, and that it is a priority.