PORTLAND, Ore. — A handful of Portland Public Schools have transitioned to remote learning. The most recent was Faubion, a pre-K through 8 school. All the closures are due to too many COVID-related absences among staff and students and not enough substitutes to fill the gaps.
The changes and the possibility of more schools going to remote learning in the near future is frustrating for everyone involved. That includes teachers and parents, who have a lot of questions.
KGW brought those questions to Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for Portland Public Schools (PPS).
A number of parents and teachers asked about the district’s threshold for moving a school from in-person to distance learning. They wondered if there are there specific metrics.
“We are looking at staff who are testing positive or who are sharing with us that they have a close contact. We are measuring and keeping into account […] how many vacancies compared to how many subs we're able to bring in,” said Garcia.
Garcia said he could not share any specific number or metrics because each decision to close a school building and move to remote learning is a complex decision-making process that involves multiple factors.
He is on a team that meets five times a day, tasked with reviewing all the data. They start meeting every morning at 6:30 a.m. to look at the numbers.
As far as numbers go, Garcia said Tuesday morning, data showed there were 391 requests for a substitute to fill an educator position and 160 of them were not filled.
Data also indicated that almost one in four students did not go to class districtwide on Monday.
But he said 75 of the district’s 81 schools remained open and are still holding classes in person.
Some teachers KGW reached out to said some educators are reporting four or five students in some classrooms. That leaves parents and teachers wondering if the district will consider moving entirely to remote.
But Garcia said raw numbers aren't the only point of reference. He gave an example, citing a small Portland high school on the brink of closing that had only half of its students showing up to class. School administrators there said they felt they were able make some changes and remain open, so they did.
“I hear our families and I hear our educators wanting a clear metric or a clear threshold, but it's not […] that simple, knowing again, our premise is to keep schools open,” said Garcia.
“We don't know what's gonna come next,” said Nicole Safranek, a teacher at McDaniel High School, one of the schools that's now back in remote learning.
Safranek also had a question about plans after students go back to in-person learning.
“What is the plan? What is your idea to solve this problem and to not just end up right back with not enough staff to keep schools open again?,” asked Safranek.
Garcia said the majority of staff who are not showing up to work are at home sick. He said the district is meeting with public health officials and expects the peak of omicron infections to be in late January, after which it's possible those who were out sick would be back to work.
Another Portland parent asked if the substitute shortages are affecting certain schools more than others and if the district is prioritizing having substitutes at one school over another.
“The substitutes themselves make a decision on where they want to sub for the day. And so, I don't think […] the system has the ability to deploy substitutes in the systemic fashion as much as we would want to,” said Garcia.
When asked if there were specific schools on the brink of closing, Garcia said the district was closely monitoring three schools. He would not elaborate on which schools because information can change quickly.
Parents also asked how special education students are receiving their education at this time.
Brenda Martinek, chief of student support services for PPS, said the district is doing what it did during hybrid learning by making sure students have the devices they need and can meet one-on-one or in a small group with their teacher virtually. They also have limited in-person opportunities for some special education students to learn how to access remote learning.
Martinek said required evaluations will still be done in person. Due to the staffing shortage, she said the district is reviewing administrative staff licenses to see who has special education endorsements so they can step in to help if necessary.
Additionally, she said any districtwide activities offered by the district are also open to students in special education.
Another topic of concern among parents involves mental health support for students.
Martinek said a couple years ago, the district increased counselors and added social workers as well as qualified mental health professionals to many school sites. There is also an app for students that’s been developed in partnership with Lines for Life.
Martinek said information on student mental health resources can be found on the district’s Student Success and Health Department page.