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State's largest educator unions lambast relaxed health metrics as COVID-19 cases surge

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students at Mary Woodward Elementary School in Tigard work on a Dia de los Muertos craft project in 2019. As Oregon relaxes its metrics to allow for schools to reopen amid COVID-19, teachers across the state are pushing back on reopening plans.Shortly after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and state health and education officials unveiled new school reopening guidelines Friday, Oct. 30, teachers unions signaled unease.

Brown announced the intent to revise the state's Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidelines for in-person learning earlier this month, as Oregon is slated to receive 80,000 rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits.

That announcement garnered pushback from a local teachers union, but educators sprung into action following the official rollout of relaxed health criteria for reopening schools. Friday, Oct. 30, marked the state's highest daily COVID-19 case count as the Oregon Health Authority reported 600 cases.

While the governor and ODE officials say the new metrics — which revise health criteria regarding COVID-19 cases to make it easier for schools to reopen for on-campus learning — are mandatory and will improve learning for the state's students, teachers raised concern over Friday's announcement.

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, criticized the timing of the state's relaxed rules, as COVID-19 cases in Oregon and nationwide continue to climb.

"As always, teachers are desperate to get back to live learning situations, but we need them to be safe. Safety is central. It's not just the educators and students, but it's the people we live with," Thiel said. "It feels a bit incongruous to be seeing a surge in the virus and at the same time relaxing health and safety standards, right at the moment where we need them the most."

Thiel noted that despite the state's plan, teachers still have many unanswered questions, namely, what accommodations will be made for those teachers at higher risk of contracting the virus.

"We still don't have widely available COVID testing in Oregon," Thiel added. "We're trying to ensure teachers don't have to choose between their lives and their jobs."

Thiel said earlier in October that Portland Association of Teachers, the union that contracts with Portland Public Schools, has yet to reach a contract with the school district for in-person learning.

On Friday, following the governor's announcement, the union addressed its members with a letter, noting union leadership is "disappointed and alarmed" at the state's decision.

"Educators haven't given up on students, but it looks like our state leaders are giving up on the fight against COVID-19," the letter stated. "As we speak, our bargaining team is negotiating safety standards for Limited In-Person Instruction. PAT will not stop fighting to ensure safe working conditions for all our members. No one should be forced to put their life or health at risk in order to do their job."

The union's letter urged teachers to write to the governor's office, along with Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill, to voice concerns over the reopening plans.

School district addresses changes

In a message to families, Portland Public Schools said distance learning would continue through Jan. 28, as previously announced.

"Overall, these updated metrics give us a more realistic chance of offering a hybrid learning model or potentially full in-person instruction for students in the second semester, which begins Feb. 2. However, we are not there yet; our county numbers still fall short and we are trending the wrong way," the state's largest school district said in the message.

The district urged families to take COVID-19 precautions seriously to help tamp down the pandemic so schools could open sooner.

Portland schools already are offering some limited in-person activities such as fitness training for high school students and assessment sites for special education and kindergarten students.

"We are dedicated to returning students to our classrooms and hallways across the city as soon as we can safely do so," PPS told families.

Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said it fears opening more schools will lead to an increase in virus transmission and cause lockdowns in the future.

But state officials say thousands of students already have gone back to school campuses in rural parts of Oregon safely.

Just over 52,000 students in counties with low case counts already are attending class in-person, Gill said. The state has yet to see an increase in virus transmission from that, but at least two day care centers have reported outbreaks of COVID-19.

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