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Portland Public Schools admin accuses teachers of coordinating sick calls

The district's HR chief says they're "getting reports of educators being asked by colleagues to call-in sick with the intention" of closing schools.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The human resources chief of Portland Public Schools (PPS) earlier this week accused teachers of coordinating sick calls in an effort to shut down schools.

At least eight Portland schools as of Thursday afternoon have moved to remote learning temporarily.

The email, which was sent Wednesday afternoon by Sharon Reese to all teachers, says in part:

"We are getting regular reports of educators being asked by colleagues to call-in sick with the intention of causing the district to close schools. Not only does this undermine our core mission by depriving students of in-person learning, it also detracts from the ability of educators to take leave to deal with COVID or other legitimate reasons ... So we need to be clear: It is unlawful for educators to participate in any sort of coordinated action to be absent for anything other than a legitimate reason under District policy."

In turn, the PPS teachers' union (Portland Association of Teachers) responded Thursday, saying the HR email was "off-base, demoralizing to all educators, and an insult to our profession.

"Our schools are operating right now only because educators are going above and beyond every single day, and often into the night and over the weekend. Rest assured, PAT will aggressively push back on any attempt by the District to intimidate or harass educators from using their own sick time to deal with COVID infection or other illness."

We've included both letters at the bottom of this story.

Maggie Byrkit teaches fifth grade at ACCESS Academy in Portland Public Schools. She’s had to take several days off from teaching this month to care for herself and her children during bouts with COVID. She was outraged when she read the district’s letter.

“It just blew me away, it made me feel incredibly shocked and then sad, ” said Byrkit, noting the accusations also didn't make much sense. “Going absent for even part of a day creates a larger workload than we already have.”

Byrkit said she doesn't believe teachers have been misusing sick time or urging others to do so.

“It’s been a very difficult period of managing the surge with COVID, there have been a lot of absences because of that, and a lot of absences are not predictable right now.”

RELATED: Here are the schools in Oregon and SW Washington that are moving to distance learning

PPS EMAIL SENT JAN. 12, 2022

Dear Educators,

As you know, we are facing serious challenges with staffing and attendance due to the surge in COVID cases from the Omicron variant. I see the tremendous effort that you and your colleagues are putting forth every day to serve our community and meet these challenges in service of our students. I hear and see how you are leaning in to cover for each other and support our students in extraordinary circumstances.

The District is experiencing a high volume of last-minute educator absences, and a number of schools have had to rapidly transition to temporary distance learning, negatively impacting students, families, and our communities. While we certainly understand that some last-minute absences are inevitable during the pandemic, there have been a few circumstances surrounding some absences that are concerning.

It is discouraging to have to send this message to all staff when the vast majority are showing up as you can and taking approved leave when you need to do so, but we are getting regular reports of educators being asked by colleagues to call-in sick with the intention of causing the district to close schools. Not only does this undermine our core mission by depriving students of in-person learning, it also detracts from the ability of educators to take leave to deal with COVID or other legitimate reasons. It further slows down our ability and resources available to offer relief to teachers and school staff across the district. We encourage you to contact PAT with questions about your rights under the contract as it pertains to work stoppages, sick outs, or other unlawful strike activity.

So we need to be clear:  It is unlawful for educators to participate in any sort of coordinated action to be absent for anything other than a legitimate reason under District policy.

Professional educators are expected to submit appropriate leave paperwork to cover absences and report absences timely and accurately. Otherwise, work time is expected to be devoted towards your professional responsibilities. Any educator who chooses not to comply with these expectations is subject to investigation and discipline.

Finally, it also has been brought to the District’s attention that educators may be engaging in union supported activities during paid work time.  While we respect your right to support your union, such support should not occur during work time unless you have prior approval. As a professional educator, you are expected to work your full contractual day.  And with that comes a level of flexibility within your working day, but you are expected to follow the absence notification procedure should you need to leave work early.

Thank you for all you are doing. The work you do in the classroom is vital to the health of our community, and this year has been harder to offer that than any other.  And it has never been more important. Experts in public health and public education have consistently affirmed that in-person learning is superior to distanced learning in all aspects of the student experience. In-person learning is even more critical because of the significant in-person instruction that students missed during the first year of the pandemic.

Sharon Reese
Chief of Human Resources

RELATED: Internet equity becomes an issue for some as Portland students return to remote learning

PORTLAND ASSOCIATION OF TEACHERS LETTER SENT JAN. 13, 2022: 

Dear PAT Members,

We’ve received an overwhelming number of inquiries about yesterday’s message from the District, accusing educators of misusing sick leave.

Rather than recognizing our extraordinary efforts to support our students in the face of untenable conditions, or acknowledging their own failures to prepare for this latest COVID surge, District leaders are now accusing PAT members of engaging in illegal activity. Their message appears to be an attempt to intimidate anyone organizing to assert their rights under Oregon law and our union contract, following the guidelines of OHA to stay home when they are sick or have symptoms of COVID, or shouldering the responsibility to care for their own family members who are sick or who need to quarantine. 

This response demonstrates how out of touch PPS administration is with what’s happening in our schools, and lands as an attempt to blame educators for the District’s own failure to honestly and proactively address the current staffing crisis and public health emergency.

This message from PPS is off-base, demoralizing to all educators, and an insult to our profession. 

We are nearly two years into this pandemic, and in the face of the Omicron surge, PPS leaders still have no plan to provide sufficient testing, or maintain the staffing levels needed to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. They have no plan to mitigate the enormous burden that educators are carrying as they show up every day to fill the gap between what our students need and deserve, and the egregious lack of staff and resources that the state and the District are providing. 

Educators have gone above and beyond this year, doing everything possible to create a positive and supportive learning environment for students in this year of chaos. Educators continue to grade student work, plan lessons, and communicate with parents while out on sick leave. Educators are substituting in other classrooms during their planning periods, or in addition to their crucial duties as counselors, TOSAs, mentors, social workers, ELL teachers, specialists, and instructional coaches. Educators are taking on the duties of paraeducators, education assistants, and custodians, to keep students and classrooms safe when schools are short critical staff.

Our schools are operating right now only because educators are going above and beyond every single day, and often into the night and over the weekend. 

Rest assured, PAT will aggressively push back on any attempt by the District to intimidate or harass educators from using their own sick time to deal with COVID infection or other illness.

We have been raising the red flag all year about dangerously low staffing levels in so many of our schools, and that the shortage would likely get worse if the District refused to address the underlying reason that educators are leaving the profession. The latest COVID surge has pushed a precarious situation over the edge.  

With Omicron raging in our community, it is predictable that so many staff and students will need to stay home. In the longer run, we know the staffing shortage will only get better if we address the crushing and impossible workload driving educators out of the profession, and build a culture of respect for the professional educators and staff who work every day to support and inspire students. We will continue to press the District for much-needed workload relief, both for this year, and for the years to come. The future of our profession depends on it.

In Solidarity,

Elizabeth Thiel, PAT President                       

Gwen Sullivan, PAT Vice President

Portland Association of Teachers