Oregon families and school staff express concern for return to school

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
July 16, 2020 7:05 p.m.

Like parents all over Oregon and across the country, Emily Crick feels at a loss.

“My brain is telling me what’s best for my child is being at school,” Crick said. “Then you read things … constantly getting information about this disease. You grapple with this decision about what is best for your child, but at the same time, what is best for your child might kill somebody else.”

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Crick's concerns are widely shared, as school districts work on plans for the fall, and parents, educators, and school staff wrestle with competing emotions and rationalizations about the best way to start the year.

Crick has three children and works as an early intervention therapist in the David Douglas School District. Before COVID-19, she traveled to different early learning programs, helping the district’s youngest students in the classroom or at home.

With COVID-19, she’s transitioned to virtual visits, empathizing over a computer screen with parents that are in the same stuck-at-home boat she is.

“I’m just there to support my families in talking through all the emotions we have as parents right now,” Crick said.

As part of the education system, Crick may be more informed about teaching her children. But like many other parents, the support system she relied on before COVID-19 — family, neighbors, even parks — are all unavailable.

And when it comes to starting school, she wants her kids to be back in the classroom. Her 5-year-old is set to start kindergarten this year.

But with cases spiking in Oregon, she’s conflicted.

Distance learning this past spring was hard for everyone. What started as "supplemental" learning became “Distance Learning For All,” and for some, academics took a back seat to more essential needs like staying healthy and keeping food on the table. Expectations fell off, as schools dropped letter grades and judged students on a pass/incomplete basis.

In survey responses collected by OPB in the spring, parents shared their concerns: that students may fall further behind, student mental health and well-being could decline, and that distance learning was simultaneously too challenging for some and too easy for others.

It’s safe to say that everyone wants a return to normalcy this school year. But in reality, that won’t happen.

There are health and safety guidelines to follow. Schools that open will do so with smaller groups of students. And a lot of families will feel more comfortable staying at home, learning remotely. School plans should be inclusive for all students, regardless of where they will be learning, something Gov. Kate Brown is working on with the state's Healthy Schools Reopening Council.

“I am pushing school officials to make sure underserved and marginalized students — our kids of color and our low-income kids — get the support and opportunities they need. We cannot allow our response to this pandemic to increase racial disparities in educational outcomes," Brown said in a statement Thursday.

"Whether or not kids are in school buildings this fall, we must provide the very best possible education for every single Oregon student, while ensuring that the school experience is as safe as possible for everyone: students, educators, support staff, parents, and the community at large."

Numerous Portland-area parents and community members have gravitated toward virtual spaces to commiserate and strategize. Jaime Cale is an administrator for the “N/NE PPS Enrollment Balancing Discussion” Facebook group.

With over 4,000 members, the group is a place to discuss topics and issues related to the schools in North and Northeast Portland.

And these days, COVID-19 and reopening in the fall dominate the conversation. Cale said administrators were seeing repetitive or irrelevant posts in the group, so they’ve created a central, weekly spot for all things COVID-19 related.

“We want what’s best, and a lot of times, that anxiety and passion together can cause this kind of chaos that we’re seeing in the group,” Cale said. “That’s why we just wanted to slow it down a little.”

As both a parent and front office worker at Rosa Parks Elementary in Portland, Cale said she sees multiple sides of the return to school conversation. Whatever the final plan for the fall, she wants to see PPS stick to the plan

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As it stands now, PPS’ reopening outline doesn’t really answer questions about childcare. Cale said going forward, those questions need to be addressed.

“The plan doesn’t really say much about what happens for the staff and the teachers,” Cale said. “How are we supposed to navigate our own families and our own lives?”

She'd like to see PPS focus on social-emotional health and learning for students and staff. The district has said the first two weeks of the year will be focused on building a foundation for the year that incorporates social-emotional skills.

But more than that, Cale would like to see more communication, more preparation, and more input from educators and staff before the start of the new year.

“The teachers are totally at the forefront of all of this, and I just feel awful for them because it seems like they’re going to have to choose one way or the other,” Cale said.

“I don’t think that’s fair for the teachers.”

“It’s terrifying,” Rachel Hanes said of plans to go back into the classroom.

Hanes teaches 2nd grade at Glencoe Elementary in Southeast Portland. She and a group of union members, including educators and other school employees, known as Oregon Public Employees United created a petition five days ago. It asks school districts to think twice before reopening for the fall and offers up a list of demands to be met.

“Until our demands for health, safety, equity, and investment have been met, distance learning, while far from perfect, is the only reasonable option,” the petition said.

If schools open, Hanes said it would be difficult to contain anything that is brought into a school.

“Our main interest is public health,” Hanes said.

The group's demands range from rapid testing for COVID-19 to hiring more custodial, facilities, and nutrition services staff to handle the increased need for sanitation and cleaning. The group also requests reduced caseloads for both on-site and distance learning and suggests sources to raise revenue to minimize the financial impacts of COVID-19.

Like Cale, Hanes wished staff, both teachers and non-teachers, had been consulted and more involved in decisions.

“School is all about relationships ... and community, and nobody wants to be responsible for someone else’s death or ill health, and that’s what this feels like,” Hanes said.

“You’re asking us to go in and perpetuate harm.”

In acknowledging the role that distance learning would place on families, the list of demands also includes a call for a moratorium on rent, mortgage and utility payments.

The petition has almost 4,000 signatures.

Hanes said the group plans to send its list of demands to Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Education, and union leaders across the state.

Teachers in other states have also expressed concern about heading back into the classroom. And in the last few days, several districts around the country — including the two largest districts in California — have announced a completely remote start to the school year.

For Hanes and many of her colleagues, summer is usually a time to reset and get ready for the school year. This year, she said things have been different.

“Instead of having that time, we are desperately fighting for what we feel like is our lives and our community’s lives,” Hanes said.

“It’s extremely stressful on top of the stress of the pandemic.”

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