Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland warn of restrictions related to COVID-19. Portland Public Schools are closed to in-person learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland warn of restrictions related to COVID-19. Portland Public Schools are closed to in-person learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Elizabeth Miller

The presidents of teachers unions representing Oregon’s five largest school districts sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown Thursday, asking her to take more steps to ensure classrooms are reopened safely, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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In her Dec. 23 announcement, Brown said returning students to in-person instruction was necessary to help the academic progress and mental health of students, after months of online learning.

Related: Oregon governor urges more schools to resume in-person teaching in February

In the letter, the five union presidents representing teachers in Portland, Beaverton, Salem-Keizer, Hillsboro, and Eugene, said Brown’s announcement urging schools to reopen in February “pushes an arbitrary timeline for reopening schools, regardless of the level of community spread of the virus.”

The group requests free and frequent access to COVID-19 testing, additional resources for schools and a clear timeline for when school staff will be vaccinated.

“Educators want students back in classrooms, they really do,” said Sabrina Gordon, Eugene Education Association president.

“We know that we can’t provide the same kind of learning experience to students through a screen, but until vaccinations are available to educators, until widespread testing and contact tracing … are readily happening and available in our schools, the safest way to continue learning right now, is continued distance learning.”

Gordon said the majority of Eugene Education Association members believe a vaccine should be available before in-person teaching resumes.

The state has said teachers are in the next group set to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s unlikely teachers will be vaccinated before Brown’s Feb. 15 goal to get students back into schools.

Related: Gov. Kate Brown wants Oregon kids back on campus Feb. 15, but many teachers won’t be vaccinated by then

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The union presidents asked Brown for a clear plan and timeline to make vaccines available for school staff in order to return to in-person instruction safely.

“Knowing that a vaccine is on the horizon now, it feels like – educators don’t have a lot of confidence that the safety measures are enough right now, as things stand, prior to the vaccine being available,” Gordon said.

“Many educators are anxious to get vaccinated,” said Portland Association of Teachers President Elizabeth Thiel, another letter co-author. “But I think having the vaccine available to all school staff and giving it time to become effective – it’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

But it’s not just a vaccine. Educators say their districts need more resources – from extra space for smaller classes to school nurses in each building.

Thiel said schools in Portland don’t have the infrastructure to create a safe learning experience for all students.

“We’re really talking about drastically changing the environment in which our students have been learning,” Thiel said. ” A lot of the things we’re asking for are the things we’ve been asking for for decades, and we’ll still be asking for, like lower class sizes and clean and safe buildings.”

Related: Bend-La Pine schools to reopen classrooms later this month

While some school districts, including Lake Oswego and Bend La-Pine, have announced they intend to resume in-person classes in the next month, others are pumping the brakes as new legislation meant to provide liability protection for schools may actually place them at greater legal risk if they reopen.

As the Oregon School Boards Association reported, schools may be at risk of losing liability protection if they open for in-person instruction without adhering to the state’s metrics and guidance, even if the guidance isn’t mandatory.

Related: Lake Oswego to bring students back to classrooms next month

Brown’s Dec. 23 announcement made metrics for reopening schools “advisory” instead of mandatory. At the time, the school boards association generally supported the governor’s approach to resuming in-person learning, which largely shifted decisions from the state to local leaders.

Gordon and Thiel said teachers’ voices are a part of the reopening conversations in their respective districts. They’re optimistic that school officials are proceeding cautiously.

But as districts continue discussing when and how to resume in-person instruction safely, teacher leaders are asking the state not to rush in getting students back before schools are ready.

“It’s not a matter of flicking a switch and getting back to normal,” Gordon said “It’s going to take some intentional, thoughtful work, and we’re ready to do that, but we don’t want to do it too quickly. We need to take our time and do this right, and do it safely.”

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