Educators and community members around the state have expressed concern about returning to the classroom too soon.

They’ve shared this in letters, on social media, and at in-person gatherings.

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Ahead of new guidance from the Oregon Department of Education expected to be released Tuesday, and bargaining with the Woodburn School District later this month, Woodburn educators will do the same.

Monday, the Woodburn Education Association plans to install flags and banners at the school district office to honor lives lost locally and nationally to COVID-19.

The WEA is the union representing teachers in the Woodburn school district. It has hosted rallies in the past to express concern for returning to classes in-person, but president Kathy Kuftin said Monday’s events offer an opportunity to connect with community members.

“This one is specifically designed for us to recognize lives lost of educators, but also share, provide an opportunity for the community to share how their families have been impacted,” Kuftin said in an interview Saturday.

Attempts to reach district officials for comment Saturday were unsuccessful. The district is currently asking families whether they want to continue in distance learning or return to classrooms for in-person instruction two days a week.

“It is important that we are able to collect parent choices as soon as possible to guide planning,” the district wrote in its online request for parent input, which was posted in English, Spanish and Russian.

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Tension between teachers and districts over when in-school instruction should resume is playing out while the state is prioritizing education workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Despite the failure of additional doses to arrive as previously expected, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday school employees remained a priority for vaccination and would be eligible starting the week of Jan. 25. The move is meant to help hasten the return of on-site school instruction.

As the Woodburn district begins discussions about reopening, Kuftin said its demographics set it apart from other school systems around the state. With a large number of undocumented families, Kuftin said students or their families may be unlikely to seek out medical care out of fear.

“We value our students’ lives, and our lives, and their families lives, and our families lives above all else, and we’ll do everything we can do to educate our students in the safest way possible,” said Tony Salm, WEA vice president.

Kuftin and Salm also points out the number of families living in multigenerational households as a reason for a potential for higher spread and for more vulnerable elders to become infected.

There have been 9,100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in 97071, Woodburn’s zip code. In Marion County, the Oregon Health Authority reports 4,593 cases per 100,000 people.

Kuftin and Salm pointed to little victories achieved through distance learning, like better attendance in Kuftin’s reading groups, and more engaged students at the high school level.

But both also acknowledged that distance learning hasn’t been easy, equitable for children, or completely effective.

“We’ve been having to be very innovative, be very creative,” Kuftin said. “In our particular community, we’ve had to bridge an incredible digital divide.”

Families needed in-home internet access, and the devices to get connected to school. Kuftin said kindergarten teachers are losing the opportunity so teach their students necessary social skills.

“There’s nothing that I miss more to see my students in front of me, and to see them in person,” Salm said. “But we want that to be safe.”

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