Education

Portland parents adjust to school closures during the teachers strike

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Nov. 10, 2023 2 p.m. Updated: Nov. 13, 2023 7:30 p.m.
Kristen Palmer and her son Jordan, 7, at their Sellwood home, Nov. 8, 2023. Palmer, a full-time college student, is juggling her studies while Jordan, a second grader at Llewelyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland, is not able to attend classes due to the strike.

Kristen Palmer and her son Jordan, 7, at their Sellwood home, Nov. 8, 2023. Palmer, a full-time college student, is juggling her studies while Jordan, a second grader at Llewelyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland, is not able to attend classes due to the strike.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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As the Portland teachers strike erases a second week of classes, about 44,000 students continue to be out of school. That leaves thousands of parents and caregivers making plans and figuring out how to support their children during the eight hours a day they’d usually be at school.

Parents OPB spoke to expressed their strong support for teachers. They rallied and picketed in front of their empty school buildings. Kristen Palmer and her son Jordan have attended rallies at intersections and in front of the district office. At one rally, Palmer took a video of Jordan chanting “P-A-T, who are we? P-A-T, who are we?”

“Jordan really liked that because he got to use the megaphone,” she said.

But the uncertainty and the shutdowns are also a stark reminder of spring 2020, when schools shut down at first for two weeks due to COVID-19, before closing for months.

“It sucks,” said parent Elinor Jones. “It sucks for the kids, it sucks for the teachers, it sucks for the families.”

OPB spoke with five PPS parents about how their families are dealing with the day after day of school closures.

Saying no to support offerings not available at school

The first day of the strike was the day after Halloween. Parent Kristen Palmer called the timing “impeccable.”

“We woke up in the morning and I was like, ‘It’s TV day,’” Palmer said, noting that her son Jordan also spent the day on his tablet and playing with his Legos. Palmer, a full-time college student herself, used the first day of the strike to get all of her schoolwork for the week done so she’d be available to be with her son the rest of the week.

Jordan is in second grade at Llewelyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland. He is on the autism spectrum, and this year, his individualized education plan allows him to spend time in the general education classroom with occupational therapy support. Palmer said the school still owes him services from last year.

When she received an email saying Jordan qualified for reading help from a paraeducator during the strike, she was confused. He didn’t have a reading coach at school. Why now?

“They’re trying to …. make it seem like they’re still giving us services when in reality, when Jordan is at school, he is not getting his services,” Palmer said.

“Jordan has an autism diagnosis and with that, there’s some differences in relating and sensory stuff and I can’t even fathom him engaging with anybody on a Zoom call,” Palmer said, noting that her son has never met the paraeducator assigned to work with him.

Palmer is in support of the teachers’ demands for clean schools and lower class sizes. Her housemate is a teacher with 34 kids in her fifth grade classroom. By the time students and staff return to schools, she also wants to see students get the services they need.

“I don’t think that kids are suffering because of the strike,” Palmer said. “I think we are experiencing the strike because the kids are suffering.”

At this point, she said Jordan is “thrilled” not to go to school. But it’s also the first year he’s been making friends, and he misses them. Palmer’s been trying to set up playdates with other kids in the meantime, but with her own college classes to stay on top of, it’s a lot to juggle.

“I support it and it’s hard,” she said.

Flying grandma in to help

Rosa Yadira Ortiz has twin third graders in Atkinson Elementary’s Spanish immersion program. Over the past week, they’ve dropped off snacks and hand warmers to teachers on the picket lines.

“The fact that teachers are putting their jobs on the line because they care about my kids feels really inspiring and just worth my time to support them,” Ortiz said.

But at the same time, she said it’s been difficult. She’s found camps for her kids to get into, but she also has to think about whether it’s affordable, or how the kids can get there while she’s working full-time. She’s been making constant trips to the library to get new books for them to read.

Ortiz’s wife and mother both live in Chicago. Her wife is a professor at Northwestern; her mother is retired. As the strike got closer, she asked her mom for help.

“I said, ‘I need your help, I need somebody else to be here with the kids,’” Ortiz said. With grandma around, she’s able to help take the kids to camps or make them food. But she’s set to head back to Chicago next week.

Like other parents, Ortiz is frustrated, especially after the years of the school district’s messaging around racial equity and helping students of color. Ortiz’s twins are Black.

“They deserve to be in school right now learning and they’re not, and we don’t know when they’re going to go back,” she said.

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She jokes about using her “mom voice” to send PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero a message.

“Mr. Guerrero, you should do better, you should be working harder, and you need to step up and do your job, period.”

Glencoe fourth grader learns ‘nature is school’ during strike

During the PPS teachers strike, Rick Ring and daughter Lou have been spending a lot of time together, hiking and visiting waterfalls, including Latourell Falls, pictured here. Lou is in fourth grade at Glencoe Elementary in Southeast Portland.

During the PPS teachers strike, Rick Ring and daughter Lou have been spending a lot of time together, hiking and visiting waterfalls, including Latourell Falls, pictured here. Lou is in fourth grade at Glencoe Elementary in Southeast Portland.

Courtesy of Rick Ring

Rick Ring is the parent of a fourth grader at Glencoe Elementary, also in Southeast Portland. Ring works remotely as a media editor while his wife works in-person. That’s meant lots of hanging out together the past week for Ring and his daughter Lou.

“I said nature is our school while the teachers are striking,” he said. They’ve been to Hoyt Arboretum, plotting out their trail on a map, picking up caterpillars and looking at the changing leaves. They’ve been on the picket lines. And after doing waterfall hikes at the Gorge, Ring suggested Lou try a rock climbing gym — he said she’s wanted to go every day since.

“That’s like a new interest unlocked — she’s never done it before … I’m scared of heights, but I like watching her do it,” he said.

He said her teacher gave students activities to do on their Chromebooks while out of school, and she’s been reading. Ring said he’s had to put his work projects on hold.

“There are some projects I want to work on that I’d be doing during the day, and I really put them to the side for now,” he said.

“I’m doing this right now because this is important and this is what I want to devote my time to — her.”

Shifting work schedules and a mortgage cause for concern

Every night in the past week, Azeb Bayou and her family — including son Leul — look for the 7 p.m. email from the school district: Will school be canceled tomorrow? In the morning, Bayou said Leul, a first grader at Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary School in North Portland, wakes up with a lot of questions.

“‘When is school going to be open? When am I going to go? Who’s going to take care of me today? Who is going to pick me up?’ He’s worried, who is going to take him — it’s very hard for him,” Bayou said. “He’s bored.”

When her son asked what a strike was, Bayou explained it to him. “‘I told him, they’re not paying them enough money so they have to strike,’” she recalled.

“He was like, ‘Oh, mommy, that’s so sad … maybe we can give them some money.’”

Both Bayou and her husband have had to shift their work schedules. Her husband now has to leave for work later, so he comes home later. Bayou works as a teacher at Albina Head Start. Her typical 7 a.m.-4 p.m. shift now has to end at noon to pick Leul up from a morning SUN School program hosted by Self Enhancement Inc. She appreciates that the organization shifted from its usual after school program in response to the strike, but wishes programming lasted longer.

“I’m scared and I’m frustrated because it keeps happening — that I have to leave my job half-day, and we just bought a house last month,” she said. “I feel bad for the other workers that have to cover me.”

Bayou said she wished PPS thought of offering some kind of child care option for families during the strike. Day care is too expensive, she said.

Leul sees his sister, who is 3 1/2 years old, go to school at Albina Head Start. Bayou said he keeps asking why he has to stay home while she gets to go to school.

“Our kids miss their teachers, miss their friends,” she said.

Strike disruption extends beyond PPS

Elinor Jones has a second grader at Vestal Elementary on Southeast Portland’s 82nd Avenue. Over the past week, no day has been the same as Jones, her partner, her mom and other parents all take turns caring for her daughter.

“We’ve really just been piecemealing things together partly because I’m in pretty strong denial that this is going to go on for a really long time,” she said.

Her daughter Tess misses her friends and the routine of going to school. At a rally Wednesday at Vestal, she saw her teacher for the first time in a week. Decorated with peace signs and hearts, Tess’ sign read, “Be teacher friendly.”

“She’s going to remember that,” Jones said, “Not just as a time where she didn’t go to school, but something was happening and there was a cause.”

Jones is a government employee and said her supervisor has responded to her need for more flexibility at this time. But waiting for those 7 p.m. emails from PPS has been challenging for Jones’ partner, a teacher in another school district.

“How many students’ lives can be disrupted by this? He’s not in PPS, but it’s impacting students beyond PPS,” she said. “It’s going well beyond just Portland.”

Jones admits that she’s lucky to have a remote job and a network of family to chip in with care. But if the strike continues into next week, she said she’ll start looking at care options. And right now, she’s feeling a lot of guilt about all of the competing priorities she’s balancing.

“I’m feeling like I’m doing several things not very well,” she said.

“I’m still working but not at 100%, and still parenting but I’m not paying as much attention to her as I want to, and I’m supporting striking teachers but not able to do that as much as I’d like to either. So it’s all of these things that are very important to me, but I just can’t do all at the same time — it’s just not possible.”

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