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Portland-area parents discuss school closures, distance learning challenges

Among the topics discussed: school closures, transitioning to full-time in-person learning and special education.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Across the country and in Oregon, schools are simultaneously dealing with the omicron surge and staffing shortages. Some schools have had to move to remote learning because there aren’t enough adults in the building.

KGW has spoken to students and teachers about the state of school. Now parents had a chance to talk about their experience this school year.

KGW spoke to six parents who have kids spanning elementary, middle and high school. Five parents have children who attend Portland Public Schools. The sixth parent has kids in the Lake Oswego School District.

“Being back in person has been very important for my kids, both from an educational standpoint, but also a mental health and social standpoint,” said Eric Happel. Happel has three kids who attend West Sylvan and Lincoln High School.

“For my kids, it's a complete 180 from last year. I mean, it's great. There's a lot of joy,” said Jennifer Dale, whose kids go to school in Lake Oswego.

Rashelle Chase Miller, who has a child in third grade with special needs and another in preschool, said school has been going better than last year, but also mentioned the effect of the omicron variant.

“The schools are just overrun and kids are sick, teachers are sick, everybody’s sick,” said Chase Miller.

Alicia Riddle, who has two children with special needs in northeast Portland, said this school year has been a difficult adjustment.

“I feel like it's almost been more stressful than when we were in full quarantine,” Riddle said.

Jaime Cale has a child in eighth grade and one in sixth grade. She said her older child has had anxiety about the school year.

“Every day they came home, it was like, oh, there was four fights, there were seven fights,” explained Cale.

She said that environment wasn’t a good fit for her eighth grader, but her younger child has had a better time transitioning and is enjoying school.

It’s clear parent and student experiences run the gamut.

“At this point, we just had to learn to be flexible,” said Maya von Geldern.

Von Geldern has a child in kindergarten and another in fourth grade. She also volunteers at a northeast Portland school in the PPS district and has seen firsthand the stress on teachers this year.

“They are literally going across the hall, back and forth trying to teach their students and keep them on track but also covering for another class,” said von Geldern. “They are bending over backwards on a daily basis.”

“I don't know […] what the quality is of learning is but […] kids are there. A lot of kids are not there,” she said.

RELATED: Here are the schools in Oregon and SW Washington moving to distance learning or closing temporarily

Parents on school closures

Multiple PPS schools have now closed and transitioned to distance learning because of staff shortages.

“If you look at the map of which schools are closed, it's very telling for which communities are being hit hardest,” said von Geldern.

The map shows Portland Public schools and charter schools that have closed as well as those that have reopened. All of them are on the east side of the city.

“The closures that have happened this winter are visibly inequitable,” said Chase Miller.

“Imperfect though distance learning may have been, you know, everyone was kind of relatively, I guess, in the same boat,” she said.

Chase Miller and other parents tossed around the idea of a possible temporary pause to in-person learning in order to find a better solution. She said random school closures are inconsistent and present more challenges for families. Other parents pushed back at the idea of more days out of the classroom and online.

“[Distance learning] did not work. It was a failure in so many regards and it wasn't because teachers weren't trying, it's just that it doesn't work,” said Happel.

He said school is the safest place for kids to be and agrees with the district priority of keeping kids learning in person at school.

“It's good to see that they also are committed to reopening them [closed schools] as quickly as possible,” Happel said.

Parent from Lake Oswego weighs in

Dale said to her understanding, the policy in Lake Oswego is also to keep kids learning in person.

“We’re not going to remote learning,” said Dale. “So we've been pretty fortunate so far. It's a smaller district, too.”

She hopes school districts will revisit restrictions soon, such as volunteering and masking all day.

“You know, masking is not a bad thing. It’s helpful, but, you know, I think kids deserve some time during the day to not mask, particularly kids with a disability,” said Dale.

Happel agreed with Dale in terms of revisiting masking requirements in schools, saying it makes it difficult for students and teachers to interact with one another.

“I know that my kids have a really hard time of hearing their teachers in the classroom,” Happel said.

Parents address lack of transition to in-person learning and special education 

Some Portland parents wished there was more of a gradual transition to full time, in person learning.

“Kids just were not ready to be thrown together in the way that we threw them together,” said Cale.

The situation can be even more frustrating for parents with kids who have special needs and say even before the pandemic, special education was already understaffed and underfunded. Riddle has two kids who have special needs, both on the autism spectrum. The pandemic has taken a toll on both of them.

“For my fifth grader, he really acts like he is in third grade or second grade now,” she said.

She said her son in fourth grade is gentle and nonverbal, but some of his classmates are having a more difficult time with in-person learning and are acting out.

“Which means all of the support goes towards those students and my son gets kind of, you know, the short end of the stick,” said Riddle.

RELATED: School nurses defend Portland Public Schools teachers accused of misusing sick time

Parents on controversial district letter to teachers

Families heard about the controversial letter sent from PPS' head of HR to teachers last week, alleging some teachers were encouraging colleagues to call in sick in order to close schools.

“These are the people who are literally holding this together and you get a slap on your hand as you're doing everything you can to help keep your school moving forward. It really is a blatant slap in the face,” von Geldern said.

“Not to be dramatic about it, but how dare you,” added Chase Miller.

“There are so many teachers out there that are doing everything they can to keep our kids in school and I don’t want that message to be lost. We’re thankful that the teachers are working to hard,” said Happel.

But he said he believes fear is causing the tension between teachers and the district

“I think people have too often misrepresented, or not thought about, the risk of not being in school,” Happel said.

“I’ve seen what PPS is saying, the administration, is saying and I largely agree with what they’ve said on these topics and I’ve largely disagree with what we’ve heard from the union,” Happel said.

Parents want creative solutions

Parents said they want a spot at the table so they can help think up solutions.

“Like even virtually, Zoom something, have more like a townhall kind of session,” Cale said.

“I wish there was a way to be a little more creative in terms of bringing volunteers and to keep more of the schools open,” said Happel.

“I really want PPS to do something radical,” began Riddle. “I'd like to see something that's different.”

“We're losing teachers. People are getting burned out. If [PPS doesn’t] figure out how to give people the time that they need, we're not going to have our teachers,” Riddle said.


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