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School district accepted 169 religious exemptions during the pandemic, district reported low staff turnover

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - An elementary art teacher at Steins Pillar Elementary in Crook County works with a student during the pandemic in 2021As teachers across Oregon were ready to quit the profession amid staggering burnout and work-related stress during the 2021-22 school year, Crook County schools found themselves relatively unscathed from high turnover.

Throughout the state, a return from distance learning coupled with low pay, staffing shortages and increased behavioral needs among students meant educators had higher workloads and more stress. Many of them said they planned to leave teaching. In a handful of districts, including Portland, Eugene, Beaverton and Hillsboro, more than 80% of teachers said they couldn't get all their work done during regular hours. In Clackamas County, 41.5% of Oregon City teachers surveyed last fall cited "unsustainable stress levels" and a nearby school district is now seeing a sharp uptick in teachers resigning.

But the Crook County School District exemplifies a lingering urban-rural divide. At the central Oregon district, the issue impacting teachers wasn't overcrowding, staff shortages or salary, it was COVID rules.

The district logged 169 religious exemptions to the statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandates for educators. District officials said they didn't scrutinize teachers' requests for vaccine exemptions and likely would have lost a big chunk of the workforce if they had.

Jason Carr, communications director for Crook County School District, said the district has seen minimal staffing impacts since the pandemic.

"Human Resources tracked resignations, and only seven quit because of masks, the vaccine mandates, or other reasons due to the pandemic."

He added that two of the seven were certified teachers and the other five were classified positions.

The district might be an outlier.

"In far too many districts, staff are keeping schools functioning through long working hours and sheer will," Oregon Education Association leaders noted in a January report called "Education at a Breaking Point."

The report used surveys compiled from several districts. It mirrored results from a national survey of educators who said they planned to leave the profession sooner than expected due to pandemic-related stress.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach is president of the Oregon Education Association. Scott-Schwalbach said OEA hasn't updated its surveys since the winter report was released, but across the state, the union is seeing teachers struggling to earn a living wage in places like Marion and Deschutes counties. Elsewhere, unions are advocating for smaller class sizes to reduce their workloads, while others in districts like Newberg have left over controversial decisions and political differences with elected district leadership.

"In so many districts, people were saying, 'I'm stressed. I've reached a point where I have to leave this profession,'" Schwalbach noted.

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - A city of Prineville Engineer works with Steins Pillar Elementary students to create mallard nests for the local Crooked River Wetlands.District embraces social-emotional learning

The Crook County School District exemplifies a lingering urban-rural divide. At the central Oregon district, the issue impacting teachers wasn't overcrowding, staff shortages or salary, it was COVID rules.

The massive turnover OEA's report warned of hasn't taken shape in Crook County. Similarly, other districts, like Portland Public Schools, are seeing less turnover than three years ago, but others are reporting a major uptick in retirements and resignations.

In North Clackamas School District outside of Portland, the number of staff retiring this year is more than double what it was in 2018-19. Resignations and relocations are also up, from 49 in 2018-19 to 54 and rising so far this summer.

In Lake Oswego, Kelly Fitzsimmons is bracing for an uptick in resignations.

"Our retirement numbers were similar to the past three years, but I am fairly certain our resignation numbers are higher than normal based on the conversations I've had with our members and individuals that I know have chosen to resign well before they're due for retirement," Fitzsimmons, who leads the district's teachers union, said.

"Education has always been a difficult career, but the conditions of the pandemic have made it a much more difficult job over the past two years," Fitzsimmons added. "Students need more from their teachers at this time, both academically and emotionally, and there simply isn't enough time in the day for most educators to meet these increasing needs."

Some say the same stressors impacting students are leading to increased workloads and burnout among teachers.

"There is a broader range now between the highest and the lowest achieving students, making it more challenging to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students," said Courtney Marshall, a third-grade teacher at Barnes Butte Elementary in Prineville. "There also has always been students who struggle with self-regulation, however since the pandemic, it seems that this number has increased. It is also evident which students have been out of the classroom the most amount of time, due to the difficulty many of them have, getting along with peers, problem solving, and collaborating," she emphasized.

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Teachers and administration at Crook County Schools leaned heavily on social emotional learning to focus on interpersonal skills and self-regulation during the pandemicIn response to increased behavioral health needs, Barnes Butte Principal Taylor Trotman has leaned heavily on social-emotional learning, which focuses on interpersonal skills and self-regulation.

Trotman set the tone at the beginning of the year for teachers to incorporate social-emotional learning within their classrooms and to be especially attentive to students' emotional needs. Things like morning check-ins with students, and talking about how to regulate their emotions, helped teachers and students alike.

"I am really proud of our teachers and how they have handled the pandemic and meeting students' needs in varying capacities," Trotman said.

Scott-Scwalbach of OEA said in some cases, the survey results collected by the union were enough to drive changes in labor contracts or working conditions at the schools.

"We were able to sit down with districts and say, 'look, this is not just anecdotal evidence, we have hard data that says people are (considering leaving),'" Schwalbach said.

Elizabeth Israel-Davis, a Portland-based teacher, found herself contemplating her career following the 2021-22 school year. Israel-Davis is a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA, but said for much of last year, she was shuffled around to different campuses to fill in as a substitute teacher amid a staffing and substitute teacher shortage at Portland Public Schools.

"It felt like we were an expendable workforce," she said. Israel-Davis contemplated leaving the profession. Instead, she left the district, taking a job elsewhere.

Even if teachers aren't leaving immediately, the survey results from several unions point to growing dissatisfaction and increased burnout among Oregon's education workforce.

Despite the state's massive investment in education after 2019's Student Success Act, educators in many districts are still seeing a lack of resources. Teachers and union leaders say Oregon legislators could fix that by devoting more funds per student, to address increased needs.

Oregon ranks 20th in the nation for spending per student, according to data released by the National Education Association in April.

Educators also say scheduling could alleviate workload stress.

Israel-Davis said many districts around the country have a weekly early dismissal or late start schedule to give teachers time to plan and collaborate.

"That could go really far in helping everybody deal," she said. When you can plan and collaborate, you're not constantly reacting."

This story is the final installment in a series on the pandemic's impacts to Oregon education.

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