GRESHAM, Ore. — This week kids at a number of school districts in Oregon will start the school year and for some it’s an exciting time. But others, like teachers who are immunocompromised, are filled with anxiety.
Jennie Richard is high school science teacher in the Gresham-Barlow School District. Doug Robertson is a fifth-grade teacher in the same district. Both Richard and Robertson spoke with KGW about their health-related concerns due to the continued COVID-19 pandemic and contagious delta variant.
“As I sit and look out at my classroom that is going to be full of students, I don't personally feel like this can be safe,” said Richard.
She turned her camera around to show the rows of desks in her classroom, set up for 30 students. Richard said her largest class period will have 41 students. Twice a week, Richard said she’ll have 234 students and three days a week she’ll have 210 students rotating in and out of her classroom. The sheer number of different students she’ll be in contact with is cause for concern, not only because she said it’ll be nearly impossible for students to maintain three-feet of distance from each other, but because she has a medical condition. She is part of a group of teachers, many of whom are immunocompromised, who have a doctor’s note saying they should not teach in person.
“I have a doctor's letter that shares that I, in her opinion, I should be offered an option to teach virtually for this year,” said Richard.
But she said the district has not given her or others like her the option to teach online, something she’s noticed neighboring districts have offered. Richard said teachers in her district are stuck between having to teach in-person or taking leave. In some cases, that leave could be unpaid, putting financial pressure on families trying to pay bills and rent, and take care of their kids.
Another high school teacher who did not want to be publicly identified due to fear of retaliation at work said her classroom was set up in much the same way to Richard's, but students in her classroom would be sitting even closer together.
Robertson had similar concerns in his fifth-grade classroom.
Concerns about vaccination and infection
“None of my kids even have the possibility of being vaccinated yet,” said Robertson. “I'm going to have 28 unvaccinated humans in my classroom in a week.”
Robertson is worried about kids in his classroom potentially transmitting COVID to each other while they’re at lunch or recess. He’s also concerned that students may carry the virus back home to their families. His worry extends to his own family, a wife and three children at home.
“What if I infect one of my kids because I had to teach. It's not fair,” said Robertson.
Not only is Robertson immunocompromised himself, so is his two-year-old daughter, who has a heart condition.
“Basically if she gets it, it's gonna go real bad,” Robertson said. “I can't express how scared and stressed and angry I am that I even have to be worried that I’m going to make my daughter sick because I was not given an option to do my job safely."
Robertson said he and his wife are fortunate because they’re able to choose to homeschool their two school-aged sons. But he knows not everyone can do it, and he also understands how to navigate what can be a complicated system. For those who may have language or other barriers, accessing important information may be more difficult.
“I'm especially concerned about members of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community,” said Richard.
Last spring, when in-person learning was being offered, Richard said four or five students showed up. The rest of her students, around 30 of them, stayed home. She said many of them said they were choosing the online option due to health and family concerns.
What Gresham-Barlow School District is saying
We reached out to the Gresham-Barlow School District. Spokesperson, Athena Vadnais said the Oregon Department of Education directed public schools to provide full-time, in-person instruction, so district employees need to be at work on site.
“Staff members who had medical documentation and requested accommodations were invited to participate in an interactive meeting with the Human Resources Department to discuss reasonable accommodations in the workplace. The accommodations are individualized, based on the medical documentation, but may include items such as HEPA filters and requests to attend meetings remotely. As is always true, staff may also access leaves as are outlined in their collective bargaining agreements,” Vadnais wrote in an e-mail.
Richard said she knows of a medically vulnerable staff member who asked to attend meetings remotely and was told no.
Vadnais also said the district has safety strategies in place that include face coverings, physical distancing, cohorting, ventilation and airflow and hand hygiene. In addition, Vadnais said school staff are required by the state of Oregon to be vaccinated by Oct. 18, unless they have a medical or religious exemption.
Regarding concerns about the potential that students may not be three feet apart from one another, Vadnais made clear that in the state’s guidelines, it says districts should maintain at least three feet between students “to the extent possible” and that “maintaining physical distancing should not preclude return to full-time, in-person instruction for all students.”
Vadnais said students or families interested in remote learning can contact the school principal and attend Metro East Web Academy (MEWA). Information can be found on the district website.
“We are in close contact with Metro East Web Academy and there are still slots available and they have assured us they will be able to handle the demand for online learning,” Vadnais wrote.
Kids return to classrooms next week
Both Robertson and Richard hope that by the time school starts next week, the district will have sent out more communication to families and teachers and that there will be an online option for both teachers and students.
Robertson said at this point, there hasn’t been adequate communication from the district to families. He said he wished the district would have asked families if they wanted to have an online learning option.
Richard said there are other immunocompromised teachers who have wanted to speak publicly but feared repercussions from either community members or the district.
“A lot of members of our community, a lot of the teachers are afraid to share their voice,” said Richard.
“It's not comfortable. I love this district. I love my colleagues. I love this profession. So, it feels really hard to be like critical of what we're seeing. But I'm empowered because I'm speaking on behalf of colleagues who might lose their home, you know, are at extreme risk of illness if they get sick. So that knowledge, empowers me to speak for them, when they don't feel like they have a voice,” Richard said.
Other teachers' stories
After the story aired on KGW, another immunocompromised teacher in the Gresham-Barlow School District reached out.
She said she was also told to return to teach in person against her doctor's orders or take leave. She sent a link to a YouTube video posted by East County Educators United that interviewed a Gresham High School teacher about a similar circumstance last spring at the onset of in-person, hybrid learning.