Students will be able to miss without penalty multiple school days added to Portland Public Schools’ calendar in the heat of teacher contract talks last month.
One of the last issues that teachers and administrators needed to resolve to end the nearly month-long strike was how to recover the lost instructional time. While there were countless areas where the two sides had strong policy differences, they agreed that the 11 school days canceled during the strike needed to be recovered.
How to do it was the problem.
The ultimate solution included turning five days of winter break — the week of Dec. 18 — into instructional days. Immediately after that plan was publicized, parents began pointing out that many families had already made travel or other plans that week that would be very difficult or costly to change.
In a message to families in the school district sent Wednesday evening, PPS Deputy Superintendent Cheryl Proctor acknowledged that adding school days during winter break wasn’t a great solution — but said it was the best option available.
“We know that families have previously scheduled plans on those days which may be impossible to break, and we sincerely wish there were other options to make up the lost time with full instructional days,” Proctor wrote.
Absences over the added days during winter break would make a bad situation worse in Oregon’s largest district. Absenteeism is a known problem in Oregon schools, with a recent state report finding that 38% of school children in the state are considered “chronically absent” for missing more than 10% of the school year.
Rather than leaning hard on convincing families to change plans and prioritize school attendance that week, Proctor’s message lays out a process for schools to know in advance how many absences they should plan for.
“Any absence will be excused, although we do ask that you report them in advance through ParentVue,” Proctor’s message said. Among the acceptable reasons for missing school in the month of December is “vacation.”
State rules require Oregon school districts to meet minimum annual thresholds for instructional time: 900 hours for elementary and middle schools, 990 hours for grades 9 to 11 and 966 hours for high school seniors.
Portland Public Schools officials said their “expected” instructional hours continue to be above state thresholds — 929 hours in elementary schools, 968 at middle schools, 1,032 for grades 9-11 and 991 hours for seniors. If the five days during winter break were not considered instructional time, PPS would be in danger of falling below state minimums at least at some grade levels.
Under the rule, school districts are required to “ensure that at least 92% of all students in the district and at least 80% of all students at each school operated by the district are scheduled to receive annually the [...] minimum hours of instruction time.” But according to the Oregon Department of Education, allowing students to miss school days for previously scheduled vacations doesn’t affect whether those days are considered instructional.
PPS echoed that interpretation, saying in an email from spokesperson Valerie Feder that “instructional hours are calculated by what is happening in the classrooms in the schools rather than how families are identifying the cause of the absence.”
In other words, a school day meets the state standard of instruction if the time is “scheduled” for that purpose — regardless of how many students show up, or why they’re absent.