Portland Public Schools prepares for end of month return to classrooms

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
March 10, 2021 3:29 p.m.

District officials shared an update on in-person learning Tuesday.

Not including a weeklong spring break, Portland Public Schools has eight days before schools are expected to reopen for elementary students, under requirements announced last week by Gov. Kate Brown.

In a school board meeting Tuesday, Oregon’s largest district shared an update on in-person instruction planning.

Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland require masks to enter. Portland Public Schools started the school year online because of COVID-19. It's now among a number of Oregon districts preparing buildings and classrooms for students to return this spring.

Signs at Richmond Elementary in southeast Portland require masks to enter. Portland Public Schools started the school year online because of COVID-19. It's now among a number of Oregon districts preparing buildings and classrooms for students to return this spring.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

“We won’t be returning to classrooms set up in a way we’ve always been used to, but we will be returning to safe learning spaces that have been adapted to meet our current needs and requirements,” said PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero during the meeting.

The district shared that 100% of teachers and school staff have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Every school will have a school nurse or health assistant, and custodial positions are almost all filled.

The district said ventilation and air quality in school buildings have been checked and improved too.

“The building ventilation systems have been inspected to ensure that they are operating properly, and have been modified to maximize the amount of fresh air that comes into the building,” said PPS Chief Operating Officer Dan Jung.

“Ventilation systems now run longer and continuously throughout the day, third party assessments have been completed, and all noted repairs have been made.”

Jung said the district has purchased HEPA filters for every classroom.

The district has made these inspections, repairs and upgrades against a ticking clock. Elementary students are expected to return to school the week of March 29, and based on a brief PPS survey sent to families, 64% of families want hybrid instruction.

According to the district, the hybrid model will have elementary students learning in small groups for two hours and 15 minutes four days a week, with full distance learning on Wednesdays.


But the district, like others around the state, is still waiting on the official executive order from Brown, as well as updated guidance from the Oregon Department of Education for more specifics. ODE said Friday the guidance would be shared on or before March 19. That doesn’t give districts like PPS a lot of time to implement them.

“If you’re changing the guidelines, districts aren’t going to be able to do too much with a day or two’s notice before an expected week of return,” Guerrero said.

What hybrid instruction will look like is still the subject of negotiations between the district and the Portland Association of Teachers.

In her report to the board, PAT President Elizabeth Thiel presented the results of conversations across 83 school buildings with 1,517 educators participating.

Educators shared social interaction as students’ greatest need not being met in comprehensive distance learning.

When asked about their plan for distance learning, educators called for in-person opportunities focused on students’ social-emotional health and physical health, while maintaining distance learning for core subjects.

“Our strongest path forward together is to build a program around I think what we all believe in, which is meeting our students’ needs,” Thiel said.

Going forward, district officials said they would share a survey with middle and high school families to figure out whether hybrid or distance learning is preferable for families. Brown’s announcement directs schools to welcome students in grades 6-12 the week of April 19.

During the board meeting, one parent requested more in-person instruction than the current hybrid model shared by the district. It reflects a petition being circulated by an Oregon group that led a fundraising campaign to reopen schools.

Other families, staff, and community members have shared concerns about reopening too soon and without a safe plan. Mxm Bloc, a local group, is planning a rally Saturday to demand a “safe and equitable plan to return to in-person learning.”

“Everyone wants to see kids back in classrooms, but what constitutes ‘safe’ means something different when your community is at higher risk when it comes to getting sick and dying from Covid,” said Mxm Bloc organizer Rashelle Chase in a release announcing the rally.

“We need to see an actual plan for a safe and equitable return to classrooms, and it needs to be one our school staff and our communities of color feel comfortable with.”

Several board members asked the district to be more transparent and communicative with families in its planning for hybrid instruction. District communication officials said there will soon be a “concerted campaign” communicating directly to families.

“What we don’t want them feeling is any doubt about the readiness of our schools from a health and safety point of view,” Guerrero said.


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