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Portland teachers union calls for school closures for coronavirus, says ‘not a matter of if, but when’

Portland Public Schools spokeswoman said district officials are working to “identify and explore a number of progressive options.”
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland teachers’ union on Thursday called for the state’s largest district to announce school closures, saying the global pandemic means the odds of such a move being necessary is “not a matter of if, but when.”

Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Karen Werstein said district officials are working to “identify and explore a number of progressive options.”

The state’s largest district, like virtually all others in Oregon, has kept schools open despite an order from Gov. Kate Brown to cancel gatherings of 250 or more people. State and local officials have said schools should remain an exception to that mandate, however, citing a desire to maintain services for low-income students.

Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen called the governor’s order contradictory, saying it’s impossible for educators to distance themselves from students during the school day.

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“It really felt disrespectful to educators and school professionals,” she said.

With one exception, private schools have been the only ones to announce closures since the coronavirus outbreak reached Oregon.

Lake Oswego’s Forest Hills Elementary shuttered for five days after school staffer was confirmed as the state’s first presumptive case in late February. St. Mary’s Academy, Central Catholic and Jesuit high schools all have announced they’ll shutter for two to four weeks.

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Maryland, Ohio and a handful of other states have announced closures of all public schools. And on Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee directed schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties to close for more than a month, a move that affects nearly 600,000 students, roughly equal to the number of students enrolled in all Oregon’s public schools.

In Portland, Cohen said the teachers union will work with district officials to maintain certain programs, such as providing meals for children whose families can’t afford to eat otherwise.

“Our intent is to be very good partners in problem-solving,” she said. “Those conversations will need to take place after we have a sense of length of time.”

Both Cohen and the union’s letter referenced research by Yale University sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis, who told Science Magazine that closing a building where a student or staffer contracted coronavirus could slow its spread by up to 25%.

“I think doing it now keeps us healthy and able to serve,” Cohen said.

--Eder Campuzano | 503-221-4344 | @edercampuzano 

This article was originally published by The Oregonian/Oregonlive, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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