With one school day left before teachers are scheduled to return to buildings, the Portland Public Schools board approved an agreement with the Portland Association of Teachers, the union representing educators, to return to classrooms.

District administrators shared an outline of the agreement and what hybrid learning will look like for Portland students. PAT president Elizabeth Thiel also spoke, sharing that members voted to ratify the agreement, and stressing that “we are still in a pandemic.”

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It’s something other board members agreed as each spoke before the vote, asking questions and sharing their decision-making process.

Board members said they’ve received hundreds of messages from students, staff and community members about reopening and how to do it.

“Thank you for writing in,” DePass said, “and yet I’m concerned about who we haven’t heard from. You know who we haven’t heard from? Immigrant and refugee families, people that don’t speak English, people that are working two and three jobs, low-income folks, we haven’t heard from those people.”

The board voted 6-1 to approve the agreement, with Amy Kohnstamm voting no.

Kohnstamm asked for more flexibility in the “six-foot rule,” a rule that requires six feet of space between people in classrooms. Citing reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may issue different guidelines, Kohnstamm urged her fellow board members to vote “no” with her. She said a three-foot requirement would allow for larger cohorts, giving the district’s older students more instructional time.

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“I think there’s a very easy pathway for us to make that experience significantly better, and stronger, and more meaningful for our kids,” Kohnstamm said.

PPS Chief of Schools Shawn Bird agreed that a rule change could make cohorts larger, but said there’s a “time factor.”

“We’ve taken furniture out of these buildings, so the buildings would have to be reset with furniture,” Bird said.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero highlighted another “time factor” — the time it may take for national guidance to trickle down to local districts, and all of the ripples a change in spacing might cause — from bus routes to staffing.

In talking about the bargaining process and the work to come to an agreement with PAT, Guerrero also mentioned the potential impact a change might have on students, including the students in distance learning.

“It would be disruptive, and I’m not sure... healthy, to reassign, needlessly, greater numbers of students,” Guerrero said.

There were two public comments, one from a parent urging board members to vote no and allow for more instructional time for secondary students, and another from a parent urging the board to support and listen to teachers, as well as resuming food service for students continuing in distance learning. The district’s home meal delivery is ending Friday, with plans for meal services to resume after spring break with “new locations and service times.”

Looking ahead to the fall, board members spoke in a hopeful tone about having students back in school, full time. But, like it has for over a year, COVID-19 remains and threatens to impact another school year.

“This agreement gets us moving forward to our desired outcome for fall, which would be...I hope, full reopening,” board chair Eilidh Lowery said.

“It depends on where we are with the disease.”

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