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Excitement and concern abound as Portland Public Schools returns to in-person learning

This is the first time kids will be learning in-person, full time, since the pandemic started

PORTLAND, Ore. — Nearly 50,000 students in Portland Public Schools (PPS) had their first day of school on Wednesday. For some who attended school in-person, it was their first day back in a classroom since March 2020. 

At Scott Elementary in Portland, on their first day of school students arrived to music, masks, and many classmates and teachers not seen in months.

When asked what he was excited about, fourth-grader Cleveland Irving said he was excited to meet new friends.

“I'm looking forward to learn,” said Elliot, who is starting second grade. 

Haidyn, who is just going into fifth grade, said he wasn’t fond of wearing a mask, but he was willing to do it.

“At least we're going to school again,” said Haidyn.

Parents we spoke to as they dropped off their kids felt similarly.

“I'm just excited for him to be back in the classroom with his teachers and peers,” said Sara, Elliot’s mother.

“We're excited to get back to something that resembles normal,” said another parent named Ben.

Lionel Irving, Cleveland’s father, said his son was committed to washing his hands, keeping his mask on, and staying away from people as best as he could.

“But you know, I want him to still also be a child,” Irving said.

For Haidyn’s grandmother, social interaction for her grandson was the most important thing.

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This is the first time kids will be learning in person, full time, since the pandemic started and things will continue to look different. Students and staff will wear masks, students will eat outside for at least the first six weeks of school weather permitting, and students will be three feet away from one another, to the extent possible. 

Despite the first day excitement, some teachers do have worries.

“We have some situations where we literally cannot seat kids three feet apart because we have too many students in a classroom,” said Amy Ambrosio, who teaches senior English at Roosevelt High School.

“Several of the high schools now […] we have far more students than the building capacity really fully supports,” she said. 

The concern revolves around the intersection of kids, full-time and in-person school, as well as the contagious delta variant.

A teacher sent a photo to give an idea of how crowded it could look in a high school classroom. It shows 40 adults in a room that has 40 high school students on the roster. PPS has said if three feet of distance cannot be maintained, furniture can be moved or teachers can switch rooms.

Credit: PPS teacher
Photo of 40 adults in a PPS high school classroom with a roster of 40 high school students

“Not only am I worried about kids coming in, contracting it themselves, but we have kids who are going home to multi-generational families,” said James Duckwell, a construction C.T.E. teacher at Roosevelt High School.

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“It seems like it's more dangerous now to be in person than it was back in March. Even though we have some students who are vaccinated, not all students are vaccinated,” Duckwell said.

“We're taking chances with children's lives,” said Ambrosio.

They say some teachers want the district to consider moving to hybrid learning. The district has said it's working closely with local public health experts.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said he knows it's a new era, opening schools in the midst of an on-going pandemic.

“First of all my hats off and big shout out to all the educators here at Portland Public Schools for their adaptability,” said Guerrero.

“At all grade levels our teachers are really going to have to work with our students to make sure to reinforce many of those health and safety strategies that we know are going to be important to minimizing any disruptions to learning,” he said.

As for the district's Online Learning Academy, Guerrero said about 625 students have signed up for it. He also said there are between 500-600 additional students currently on a waitlist. Guerrero said the district is working on expanding the number of teachers in the online program in order to meet more demand.

For teachers who may have a medical condition that precludes them from teaching in person, Guerrero said the district is still working with its labor partners to make sure there are options.

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