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Portland teachers union signals disapproval of sending kids back, says no contract in place yet for in-person learning

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students at Bridger K-8 School in Portland listen to a presentation about clean energy in January 2020. The governor's office and state health officials say they're working to get students back in classrooms with revised health metrics amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that despite Oregon's increasing rate of COVID-19 infection, the state would like to ease up on restrictions for reopening schools.

During an Oct. 6 press conference, Brown said the state is slated to receive an estimated 80,000 coronavirus rapid antigen test kits per week from the federal government, which will nearly double the state's testing capacity.

The governor warned that increased testing doesn't guarantee schools will resume in-person learning, but indicated state health officials are exploring ways to revamp the current health metrics so that schools could more easily meet the requirements. Currently, large districts like Portland Public Schools must meet both county and state metrics that require 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people for the previous seven days. Additionally, the test positivity rates must be at or below 5% across the counties the school serves and across Oregon.

"We're still exploring this issue, but I think it's fair to say that the statewide metric, frankly, is quite challenging for communities around the state. And my top priority is to make sure that we get our kids back into school safely," Brown said.

The announcement caught teachers off guard.

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said educators have been pushing back on efforts to reopen schools since before the start of the school year.

"At this time, as we are seeing schools in New York open and then close again, and the White House has infections spreading still. It does not seem like the right time to roll back requirements," Thiel said.

In the seven days leading up to Brown's announcement, Oregon reported 2,104 new and presumed cases of COVID-19 and 25 deaths. To date, Oregon's COVID-19 case count has been lower than most other states, including neighboring states Washington, Nevada, Idaho and California.

When asked if PAT would embrace in-person instruction if a district could meet revised metrics laid out by the state, Thiel said if infection rates look anything like they do now, the answer is "no."

"We aren't meeting the current metrics," Thiel noted. "Absolutely, teachers have overwhelmingly expressed that they are not comfortable going back to live classrooms in the current situation. We absolutely want to be live with our students, but we need to do that at a time when it's safe and in a way that's safe, and not at the expense of the lives of our educators, our students, or their family members. When this spreads through schools, it spreads back to the communities."

Aside from teachers' pushback, Thiel said the union has yet to reach an agreement with Portland Public Schools about in-person learning.

"We are currently in talks with the district around a memorandum of understanding," Thiel said, noting PAT and PPS have "been in talks for months" about how to meet the needs of students with distance learning.

"We still need to talk to them about conditions under which we would return to live classrooms, either as a hybrid model, or into full live teaching during the pandemic," she explained. "At this time, we are not close, we haven't even really begun those discussions and we have been very focused on making distance learning work."

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