In September, a high school staffer sent a message to acting Woodburn School District superintendent Juan Larios, asking for more support and resources.

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“Students, staff and families are not okay,” read the email.

“We are exhausted, stressed, worried, and scared.”

At the end of the last school year, the sense was that COVID-19 would not impact the 2021-2022 school year as much as it had the last two years. With vaccines, and cases declining, schools prepared to return to full-time, in-person learning. School leaders hoped to offer students a warm welcome back to classrooms after 18 months of interrupted learning and lives affected by COVID-19.

The delta variant changed all that, and as the return to school this fall got closer, excitement for a return to “normal” was undermined by anxiety about what “normal” even means. Among the places navigating the enormous difficulties at Oregon schools this fall, is the Woodburn School District, in Marion County.

Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon, Saturday, July 22, 2017.

Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Oregon, Saturday, July 22, 2017.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Woodburn has about 5,500 students, the vast majority of whom are Latino. Like other communities of color around the country, Woodburn has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

School staff there say students and staff are struggling, and safety measures outlined in district plans aren’t being followed, or have taken staff away from their primary duties.

Larios, Woodburn’s acting superintendent, denied OPB’s request for an interview to discuss the beginning of the school year. Instead he sent a statement that included bullet points outlining health, safety, and staffing efforts in the district.

“The return to school has been an exciting time for the families of Woodburn but it’s not been a time without challenges,” Larios wrote. “Woodburn, like so many other communities across the state, has faced difficulties with transportation, staffing levels, and adjusting to implement systems for COVID safety.”

Two Woodburn employees OPB spoke to for this story requested anonymity out of concern for how the district might respond to their statements.

“As soon as we came back, it was all about academics”

Misha Pfliger teaches at Success, Woodburn’s alternative high school. The school is small, serving students who have attendance issues, or may need extra support. Teachers there focus on meeting students’ social and emotional needs.

Pfliger said his students really need that after being away from school for a year and a half. He’s seeing a lot of students having a hard time regulating their emotions.

“What we’re seeing is just students who are lacking a lot of the social and emotional skills, only because they just haven’t been around either for a while, which is to be expected,” Pfliger said. “But also just because of the circumstances.”

Those circumstances include picking up jobs during the pandemic, or feeling more anxiety and depression. Some students experienced death or illness in their family due to COVID-19. Many high school students hadn’t been in a school building since middle school.

Pfliger said there hasn’t been enough effort on getting students ready to be back in school before jumping back into teaching.

“There’s a lot of hand-wringing about learning loss, but the real concern I see with students right now is just their ability to interact with people. I mean, we really haven’t put much effort into reintegrating them into a social environment,” Pfliger said.

“As soon as we came back, it was all about academics.”

Staff at both the district and school level have polled students and families to try to get a sense of how the return to school has been. The district is currently collecting feedback from families about the return to school. According to Larios, at least 85% of surveyed families feel “average to well above average” about three areas they asked about: children’s connections and relationships at school; mental health supports at school; and school efforts to protect against COVID-19.

Feedback from students reflects a different reality. In the same email a Woodburn High School staffer sent Larios in September, saying students were “not okay,” they included the results of their own survey of over 100 high school students.

  • 20% said that “I feel like the adults here care about me”
  • 25% said they feel like they’re close to quitting
  • 77% are feeling behind in school/feeling overwhelmed
  • 10% are self-medicating

Another Woodburn High School teacher, who asked OPB to remain anonymous, surveys their class periodically to see how students are feeling. Here’s what they heard:

What is causing you stress?

  • About a third said family responsibilities.
  • 40% reported feeling overwhelmed with work from school or feeling behind in school.
  • 52% said “all the little daily things that add up.”

But the teacher’s survey also offered some positive signs, with 70% of responding students saying they were “starting to get used to [school]”, and 58% saying they felt good “to see people in person again.”

Like other school districts, Woodburn has provided daily social emotional learning lessons for students. But some students may have anxiety just showing up.

“I have some students that are too stressed to even go to that class,” said one high school staffer.

One high school staffer reports seeing more drugs and fights on campus. They said the school has referred as many students to social workers in the first five weeks of school as they would in an entire school year.

“Right now it just feels almost helpless, because I feel like...I can’t offer what they’re needing,” they said. “The level of drugs we’re seeing, I’m like, ‘we need a drug and alcohol counselor!’...I don’t know what to do and how to help them.”

For other students, school is a safe place, even as schools struggle with following COVID-19 safety measures.

Teachers see gap between safety plans and reality

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Woodburn school staff are aware of their demographics, as a district with large numbers of Latino students, facing a COVID-19 pandemic that has hit communities of color particularly hard.

Cynthia Branger-Muñoz, president of Woodburn’s teachers union and an instructional coach at Nellie Muir Elementary, said it’s the job of schools to do whatever they can to control the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. She said right now, the district is doing the minimum.

“We need more than minimum for our students to be safe, and it’s not just students, but the community — everybody sends their kids to school, and a lot of people live in multigenerational houses,” Branger-Muñoz said, pointing out her own multigenerational house.

“That’s how we choose to live in the Latino community, that’s who we are! We live with each other, we’re in each other’s stuff, so the pandemic has been really hard for us.”

For Heritage Elementary first grade teacher and Woodburn Education Association vice president Tony Salm, he’s noticed a disconnect between the theory of Woodburn’s safety plans and the reality of what happens in school.

“There’s a lot of concern that the safety measures that are being implemented exist kind of on paper, as a check-off, but when they come up against the reality of a crowded school situation, are not practical and are not really happening,” he said.

He mentions things like social distancing, lack of transparency about the impact of COVID-19 on students and staff, and communicating exposures to families..

There is no COVID-19 dashboard on Woodburn’s website to keep track of cases or quarantines, like other districts have. District officials did not respond to a request asking how many students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year began. Using the Oregon Health Authority’s weekly COVID-19 report dated Oct. 13, there are 19 “recent cases” in Woodburn schools.

Due to reporting lags, that number is likely behind current case counts in the district. But a Woodburn High School teacher suggested case counts might indeed be low, thanks to students and staff following state mask guidance.

Woodburn acting superintendent Larios said the district has several safety measures in place, including on-site testing for symptomatic students and staff, updated ventilation systems, and training on social distancing and handwashing.

Some staff members dispute that all of these efforts have been rolled out, and say the training they received prior to the school year did not include updated information, such as how to handle the delta variant.

Woodburn teachers also say students come to school sick. Staff members have stories of students falling asleep, or coming to school with a fever.

Teachers say contact tracing falls on school administrators or staff members who have to do that work on top of their regular duties.

Short-staffed, Woodburn stretches the people they have

Like districts around the state and country, Woodburn is facing staffing shortages. The district said it has secured building substitute teachers, as well as additional educational assistants and classified staff, but it’s unclear if all of those positions have been filled. The district has job listings for educational assistants as well as support teachers, and has increased wages for classified positions.

Branger-Muñoz said she checks in at her school’s front office daily to be ready to sub. She recalled showing up to school one day after a doctor’s appointment, having to sprint from the office so she and another staff member could cover for absent teachers. She gave students a few minutes to talk so she could read up on her assignment for the class.

“I just do my best, and I’m sorry, but how can you get an education that way?” she said. “It’s just not continuous when the person’s reading for three minutes what they’re going to teach you, and that’s all the time I have. And it’s not uncommon for teachers — we have less prep time and more workload.”

Non-classroom teachers have also been pulled in to sub, like coaches and counselors. That takes counselors away from counseling students who really need it.

One high school staff member said their doctor offer to help fill out paperwork so the staffer could go on long-term disability because of the stress of the job. The staffer said no, but the job is taking a toll.

They say they’ve heard from colleagues all over the state that teachers are already feeling “April-tired,” a term teachers use to describe exhaustion they typically experience near the end of the school year.

“If we’re this tired now ... it’s hard enough just to do classroom management and to take care of students, but let alone plan for lessons, and doing that kind of stuff,” the staffer said. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like later in the year.”

Settling in to the school year

Teachers in Woodburn circle back to one positive aspect of this school year, after 18 months of shuttered classrooms: contact with students. Branger-Muñoz’ favorite moment so far this year happened during music with a kindergarten class.

“All of a sudden, a kindergarten girl leans over to me, and she says, ‘Maestra?’, and I thought, she wants to go to the bathroom for sure,” Branger-Muñoz said.

“So I was like, ‘yes?’, so I lean in ... so she leans over, and she whispers, ‘I like to say the word poop.’”

It’s those little silly moments that make the job worth it, Branger-Muñoz said.

“Kids are just hilarious, they make my day,” Branger-Muñoz said laughing. “And if they weren’t there, I probably would be gone!”

Going forward, COVID-19 cases are likely to decrease. But teachers worry about the lasting effect of this time on students, especially without taking adequate time to get reacquainted with school again.

“I think COVID will get better, but I think the other issues that it kind of triggered won’t,” said one educator.

For things to get better for students, and for staff, Woodburn educators want to see open positions filled, better handling of COVID-related issues, and more transparency from the district.

The district’s teachers union continues to bargain with the district over COVID safety and work assignments.

“We remain open to ideas, questions, and conversations with staff, families, and students,” wrote Larios.

That includes collecting feedback from families through a return to school survey, as well as planned listening sessions over the next couple of months, something the union said it will host.

Larios said that feedback will inform planning for the rest of the school year.

Until it gets better, teachers say as hard as it is to be back, it’s better than being at a distance.

“It’s a real sense of, this is the hardest teaching’s ever been, but also just a desperate relief to actually be interacting with our students again,” Pfliger said.

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