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Majority of instructors surveyed opposed returning under current circumstances; district remains confident in plan

Just days after plans were announced to reopen the Lake Oswego School District for in-person learning, the Lake Oswego Education Association put out a news release stating that the majority of its members felt uncomfortable with returning to school under current circumstances.

LOEA is a teachers union representing 440 of the district's teachers, counselors and specialists.

As it stands, positive cases are higher than recommended by the health metrics. District staff has not had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated and a new variant of the virus has emerged in the United States.

However, when Gov. Kate Brown released the statement Dec. 23 that districts could begin planning for in-person learning, health metrics were moved from mandatory to advisory and LOSD began putting in motion its plan to reopen. The district, in consultation with local health officials, has decided to begin a phased-in transition to what is referred to as the AM/PM hybrid model, starting with kindergarteners on Feb. 1.

LOEA's news release stated 330 of the 440 union members were surveyed about their thoughts on returning to school.

"A survey by the union found that 76% of the responding members were opposed to returning either until a vaccine is available or until the district uses health metrics to decide when to reopen," the release stated.

It also said teachers are afraid "for their students, their families and themselves."

Director of Communications Mary Kay Larson said the district had finalized negotiations with the teachers union last year, agreeing that teachers would return to in-person learning when the state allowed after being given two weeks of notice to make necessary preparations.

The memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the district and the union was signed Nov. 4, 2020, to remain in effect until June 30, 2021.

At the school board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 12, Superintendent Lora de la Cruz presented to the board a detailed report of how the plan to reopen transpired.

De la Cruz said that on Jan. 4, after winter break was over, she met with LOEA President Kelly Fitzsimmons about the district's plan to reopen.

"And LOEA communicated that we share that timeline that we had in mind to students and staff as soon as possible," de la Cruz said.

The district told teachers and staff about the plan Jan. 5.

"The press release was a surprise," Director of Communications Mary Kay Larson told the Review.

Fitzsimmons said during the board meeting that the MOA was signed under the impression that schools would have to use health metrics to determine a reopening schedule.

"We really want to see adherence to the metrics, which is really what we considered when we made our agreement in the MOA," she said. "Teachers, when they voted, they believed that we would have those metrics in place all year long."

In her presentation to the board, de la Cruz laid out the considerations that were taken when planning for in-person learning.

They included the AM/PM hybrid model with small cohorts and a maximum of 2.5 hours of in-person learning, as well as the district's equity lens and evidence that schools are not a driving force in the spread of COVID-19.

She also mentioned that families will have the option of reconsidering their children's learning options, but they'd have to make a decision this week. Families currently in LO Online (the district's online-only curriculum that was intended to be used for a full year of learning) can choose to move out of it, and families currently in comprehensive distance learning can choose to move into LO Online if they don't wish to transition to hybrid learning.

De la Cruz also mentioned that a vaccine is in the near future for educators.

"We've gotten great news today that educators and school personnel are going to be able to access the vaccine as of Jan. 23," de la Cruz said.

The promising news was quickly halted, however, when Brown learned Thursday night, Jan. 14, that vaccine reserves promised by the federal government don't exist.

"I received disturbing news, confirmed to me directly by Gen. (Gustave) Perna of Operation Warp Speed: States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses," Brown said in a tweet.

She added that she will be demanding answers from the Trump administration.

"This is a deception on a national scale. Oregon's seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon's share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us," Brown said.

The question of vaccine timelines aside, the district believes that a return to in-person learning is crucial for many students. De la Cruz said some students are responding well to distance learning but many are experiencing mental health issues as a result.

"What I know for sure from working across the socioeconomic spectrum throughout my 28 years as an educator is that mental health, social-emotional issues and struggles cross socioeconomic barriers," de la Cruz said.

Executive Director of Project Management Tony Vandenberg and District Nurse Ann Nelson also spoke on how the district has prepared to welcome students back Feb. 1.

Vandenberg said his team has completed a list of over 100 tasks that are aimed at improving the safety of schools during the pandemic. For example, each school building will be equipped with ionization devices that bind fine particulates, as well as electrostatic cleaners and plenty of personal protective equipment for every student, teacher and staff member.

Nelson said the district has implemented health screening protocols for staff and students, reorganized the health rooms to allow more space in between cots, assigned designated isolation areas and created documents for parents outlining what symptoms should keep kids home.

"We also want folks to know: This is not about political pressure, this is about the well-being of children, this is about public health information and this is about in-person learning," de la Cruz said.

The Review spoke with Fitzsimmons following the discussion at the Jan. 12 board meeting.

She said that although the district believes mitigating some risk of COVID-19 transmission is enough to create a safe environment for teachers and students, teachers think adhering to the health metrics would create a safer environment.

She said the news of a faster vaccine rollout for educators is exciting, but it's worrisome that the district's timeline doesn't correspond with it.

"It has made many teachers wonder why the district administration cannot push back the starting dates by a few weeks to make sure that teachers have a chance to receive the vaccine and develop immunity," she said.

As for what happens next, Fitzsimmons said teachers who are high-risk will be reaching out to the district human resources department to see if they can switch their teaching position to LO Online.

"If no positions are available, teachers will likely have to choose between resigning or taking an unpaid leave of absence, which would also mean they would have to pay for their own health insurance," she said.

Fitzsimmons said returning to school now will not offer the school environment students remember. There will be no recess, no lunch time and no passing period where students can talk to peers.

"Reopening now will put teachers into a riskier situation than they initially agreed to when the low community spread state metrics were a requirement, and it will not return our students to the life that we are all longing for," she said.

To fully hear the concerns of teachers, de la Cruz released a statement Jan. 15 that she will be hosting virtual town halls next week for elementary personnel at each of the district's elementary schools.

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