Thousands of Portland Public Schools students, staff absent from added week of classes following teachers strike

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Dec. 20, 2023 12:55 a.m.

More than 9,000 students were absent from Portland schools on Monday. Nearly twice as many teacher substitute requests were made this year compared to the week before winter break in 2022.

More than 9,000 students — about 20% of the student body — and over 550 teachers in Portland Public Schools were absent Monday. Those numbers are expected to climb each day this week.

Dec. 18-22 was initially scheduled for winter break, but district and union leaders turned those vacation days into school days to make up for time lost during the recent teachers strike that closed schools for more than three weeks.


Sharon Reese, PPS chief human resources officer, previously said the district needed to make up more than 3,600 minutes — 60 hours — of lost time. Oregon law requires schools to provide 900 or more hours of instructional time each year.

Adding 15-minute increments to current school days wasn’t workable to make up the deficit, she said, and it would cause “unresolvable” schedule issues. So, administrators looked at full-day make-ups.

For schools on semester schedules — meaning middle and high schools — Reese said it’s important to make up as much time in the first semester as possible to account for curriculum lost this term. Grades in this semester are especially important for high school seniors applying to college.

FILE: Hundreds of people attend an Portland Association of Teachers rally held at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 1, the first day of the strike.

FILE: Hundreds of people attend an Portland Association of Teachers rally held at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 1, the first day of the strike.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Extending the school year further into June also doesn’t benefit seniors since they finish early. That’s true of the three days already added, but it would put seniors in a deeper bind if the district solved things for everyone by stockpiling make-up days in June.

So, leaders with PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers changed the first week of winter break into school days.

There was immediate pushback from students, families and staff. Petitions circulated, and people testified at public school board meetings. Many who had travel plans that week frantically searched for alternatives or told their schools they simply would not be showing up for classes this week.

In early December, Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent for PPS, sent a letter to families explaining that the district knew some families had plans they couldn’t break. Absences won’t count against the students. The district requested families give schools as much warning as possible for the days their students would be absent so educators could prepare.

Preliminary data obtained by OPB on Friday showed between 2,400 and 3,240 students were expected to be absent on any individual day this week, increasing as the week went on. These numbers were based on pre-registered absences by families to their individual schools. District officials said there was likely some overlap. For example, if a student is out Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the absence counts once per day.


But we know now that the actual number of students missing class this week is significantly higher than those original projections, with 9,019 students out on Monday. These absences are out of the approximately 44,000 students enrolled across more than 80 campuses districtwide.

The district has never added a week of school back during a break before, so it’s hard to say how this attendance data compares to previous years. OPB requested student attendance data for the week before winter break in 2022. PPS officials were not able to fill the request in time for publication.

In a letter to families Monday, Jon Franco, chief of schools for PPS, said the district will continue calling the homes of students with unreported absences each day this week, as they would any other day. Schools can update any unreported absences after the fact, but if a parent or guardian has not reported their student’s absence, they will receive a phone call.

Staff absences

It’s common in schools to have more absences leading up to a long break, but teacher requests for substitutes show this year’s need is substantially higher than last year.

The preliminary data obtained by OPB on Friday showed 1,067 educators requested some form of leave this week, with between 540 and 740 teaching subs needed on any day. The latest state data shows PPS employed 2,726 teachers last school year.

Like student absences, the number of absent teachers is expected to increase as they get closer to the break later this week, and there’s also an overlap of teachers requesting more than one day that contributes to the total.

But as of last Friday, 3,181 teacher substitute requests were made for this week. That’s almost twice as many as were requested for the week before winter break last year, which totaled 1,687 requests.

PPS communications officials said Friday that the district had filled about 72% of the teaching requests so far. On Tuesday, nearly 74% of teaching substitute requests were filled for the day, with 168 slots left uncovered.

Additionally, 246 classified workers had requested subs for the week, totaling 853 requests over five days. Classified employees include paraeducators, bus drivers, custodians and food service workers.

Franco said the district has planned for these reported absences and is ready for the students who can attend. However, they said students may encounter some unfamiliar faces, such as substitutes for bus drivers or classroom teachers, as well as more students in combined classrooms.

He said principals may also be absent, with substitute administrators or assistant/vice principals stepping in during these days.

Franco explained that central office staff would be filling some of these gaps as well. “It is an excellent reminder that we are one team with one focus — giving students a high-quality teaching and learning experience,” he wrote to families.

If further adjustments are needed, Franco said educators will communicate those on a school-by-school basis.