The first Portland-area district on the Oregon side of the Columbia River to push ahead with reopening plans after rules changed last month is facing resistance from its local teachers union. The Lake Oswego School District announced plans last week to start reopening schools to its youngest students starting a month from today. The resistance from the LOEA follows a message last week to Gov. Kate Brown from teachers union leaders at Oregon’s five largest districts.

Health researchers have said that students — particularly children up to third grade — are at relatively low risk. As Oregon has tracked the virus in institutions from nursing homes to childcare centers, it has found cases showing up in dozens of schools that offer in-person instruction, but not in numbers large enough to suggest that schools are significant sources of transmission.

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The first presumed case of coronavirus in Oregon was diagnosed in an employee at Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego.

The first presumed case of coronavirus in Oregon was diagnosed in an employee at Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego.

Meerah Powell / OPB

The Lake Oswego Education Association, the local union representing 440 teachers, counselors and other educators, released a statement Monday blasting the move, headlined “Lake Oswego teachers don’t want to die or kill their families.” In the LOEA message, the union said it surveyed its members, and found 76% “were opposed to returning either until a vaccine is available or until the district uses health metrics to decide when to reopen.” The union said its survey found only 11% of members “looked forward to returning to the classroom.”

Local president, Kelly Fitzsimmons, said that on one hand, “Teachers want to be in the classroom. Teachers miss their kids.” But at the same time, she said teachers have serious concerns about being exposed to COVID-19, as case numbers and death counts continue to rise.

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“We have heard from educators who care for elderly parents, who have health conditions that make them vulnerable. Some are on the verge of panic, on the verge of quitting,” Fitzsimmons said.

A Lake Oswego school employee was the first person in Oregon identified with COVID-19, last winter.

Lake Oswego district officials defended the decision to reopen in a message Monday. It said union leaders were consulted last year and the district is working within the guidelines of their agreement.

“During September and October, district and association leadership representing teachers, counselors and specialists met weekly to develop a new agreement (MOU) for Hybrid Learning, which included the agreement that teachers would return to in-person school when allowed by the state,” LOSD communications director Mary Kay Larson said in a statement emailed to OPB.

The message said union officials were notified of the planned return to hybrid learning on Jan. 4.

The district message suggests top officials agree with the union on the importance of vaccines for teachers.

“Superintendent Dr. [Lora] de la Cruz met with the governor virtually to personally advocate for school personnel moving up in the vaccine distribution list and is collaborating with Clackamas County school districts and public health to expedite vaccine distribution to school personnel,” the message said.

Elsewhere in Oregon, school officials in Bend-La Pine and Redmond announced plans to resume in-person instruction in the coming weeks. In Southwest Washington, the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts plan to ramp up in-person learning, as well.

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