With vaccines shipping to battle COVID-19, the pressure on schools in Oregon to resume classroom instruction is growing. The Portland Tribune spoke with Portland Association of Teachers President Elizabeth Thiel regarding how her more than 3,000 members feel about that prospect.
The answer? Hopeful, but needing a lot more information about how the vaccines will work. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Click here to see a recent Portland Public Schools online roundtable on the subject.
Portland Tribune: What are your members experiencing right now?
Thiel: I have heard so many people tell me they've never worked more hours in their life. There was a huge learning curve with technology. Teachers were given basically a few days to learn to teach in an entirely new way this fall.
The art of teaching is about standing next to a student when your presence helps keep them on track, a side comment you make to build a relationship. So many of the activities that we do in class that are most meaningful involve kids talking to one another and doing things together, moving around. Teachers have really had to reinvent how to engage kids and build relationships, while helping kids build relationships with other people.
Tribune: Does online education provide an adequate substitute for in-person?
Thiel: Absolutely not. We would never have chosen to go to online education. I mean, there's a lot that can be done, and I hear from teachers all the time who are finding new successes, but I have not heard from anybody who has said this is a better model. There are kids here and there who benefit from this model. But so much of what we do in classes is not just about delivering information, it's about building community.
Tribune: Does it hit age groups differently?
Thiel: So much of what we typically do with kids in the early grades, is social work, right? Social in terms of kids interacting, learning how to be in a community, learning how to solve problems with one another.
And older kids are more likely to be able to work independently with technology to manage their schedules, which really means younger kids are depending on the adults who are at home with them, to support them in being able to access their learning. And not every kid has the same level of support at home from adults or older siblings who are there to help them.
Tribune: Some people think that because the vaccines are coming, life will be back to normal in a matter of months. How does that look to teachers?
Thiel: There's a lot in between where we are now and everybody being vaccinated. So we're going to have to see how that plays out. Ultimately, we're all looking forward to when there is a widely available vaccine that almost everybody has taken, and coronavirus is no longer an issue. But my understanding is we can expect coronavirus to be transmissible well into the spring.
Tribune: What portion of your members either have an underlying health condition or live with someone who does?
Thiel: About 40% of our members have identified themselves as having either a condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19 or living with somebody who does. Whether it's because a person has a heart condition or a child with an immune deficiency, it feels like a decision between keeping your job and putting your life or your family members lives at risk. And we did do a survey recently: our members are overwhelmingly not comfortable with the idea of going back into live classrooms — even if the virus was controlled down to the level at which the state would allow schools to start opening.
Click here to read a recent survey of Portland teachers' thoughts on reopening.
Tribune: As some pharmaceutical executives have said, the vaccines are not yet proven to halt transmission or infection, just to stop the resulting sickness. If a vaccine prevents sickness in nine out of 10 encounters with an infectious person, or 19 out of 20, is that a solution for your members? Could classroom instruction resume by fall?
Thiel: We're not making any assumptions. It's all of our hope that we'll be at a place as soon as possible where we have effective therapies for the coronavirus and a very low likelihood of anybody transmitting the virus in public spaces, but we are so not there yet. Even with the vaccines, they're not even approved for the use of children at this point. So I think we've got to continue planning a few months out.
Tribune: There's a growing movement to reopen schools sooner than that, and a lot of it has to do with equity. What are teachers seeing in terms of disparate effects on people of color and people who are living in poverty?
Thiel: This virus is definitely highlighted existing and worsened existing inequities. I was talking to a teacher in English as a second language in North Portland about how the district had offered students to come in and do their testing lives. And families were not interested in it. We know that there's huge continuing inequities in just having access to technology and places to learn. What we're hearing is in the lower income communities in North Portland, the Wi-Fi is terrible.
Tribune: Where do your members stand on the rise of "pod" learning: families that can afford it forming pods to hire their own private teachers to replace PPS.
Thiel: We believe in public education, and that education is something that should be offered equitably to everybody. That is one reason that we're proposing things like the district providing support people for students who need it. It should never be where somebody lives or what they can afford determines what experience they have in public education.
Tribune: If distance learning is going to continue for a while, what needs to be done to make it more effective? What do teachers need?
Thiel: One of the pieces that we've been asking for, and the district has so far not been interested in talking to us about, is support for students. So some of the things that we are asking for, to make this work better, is we have substitute educators in Portland public schools who are fully licensed educators, and we have not been utilizing them much this year. So we're asking for things like utilizing those employees already budgeted for, to support kids who aren't finding success in distance learning — whether that's in a one-on-one virtual study, support person, or someone to check in with them over the phone.
We're also asking for things like physical materials. Some of our kids do really great on a screen and other kids would really benefit from having physical materials (or handouts).
Click here to read the results of two months of surveys in which teachers highlight inadequate technology, support.
Tribune: Are your members getting the curriculum support they need? Are they getting the training?
Thiel: Our members are definitely finding a lack of support in terms of materials available to post online. The work of turning what was a hands-on activity into something that's presented through a screen is a huge amount of work. And so one of the things that we have asked for is for the district to provide lessons so that teachers can spend their time supporting kids, rather than having every single teacher across the district create these materials themselves. And what we found is that those things have not always been available in a timely manner.
Tribune: Given the stress and work you are describing, are teachers thinking about quitting or taking a leave?
Thiel: It's been a huge struggle for lots of teachers to figure out, as it is for working parents of all different professions. We know about 40% of our teachers are parents and have kids at home, who they are also helping through their own distance learning experiences. And we have teachers who are caring for sick family members. And teachers are doing things like turning their living rooms and living space into classrooms from which to broadcast.
The district has told us there's more than 330 educators on leave at this point, which is a huge number. I don't know the number of those that are full-time versus part-time leave. We have had so many educators that are reaching out for mental health support through all this.
Tribune: What could help hasten the return of classroom instruction?
Thiel: One the things we're asking for there to be a hand-washing available at schools. And that might sound like a silly thing for teachers have to ask for. But it has been our experience that bathrooms frequently don't have soap or paper towels.
We want to make sure we're following state education department guidelines around square footage per person, 35 square feet. We're asking for adequate air ventilation because we know that the one of the biggest factors in transmitting the disease is being in an enclosed space without good air circulation. Some of our buildings are pretty old. Some classrooms don't have windows that operate, or that open well or wide.
Tribune: How about hybrid learning, having classes meet only infrequently?
Thiel: Sometimes people ask us, how about teachers teach a third of their kids on Monday, a third on Tuesday, a third on Wednesday. And then while they're teaching those kids live, also be teaching the other kids distance learning at home.
And one thing that our educators have just been really clear about is that you cannot be both teaching live and teaching distance, at the same time. It's different materials, different techniques. When a teacher is teaching live, they need to have their attention on the kids in the room, not on managing technology. It's just doing two jobs at once.
Tribune: So you're saying that there's not staffing or other support to do that.
Thiel: Where it comes down to what kind of resources would it take to reopen our schools, when we look to some of the other countries who have successfully reopened schools, they are with much smaller groups of kids than we are currently staffed for.
Tribune: Are state or local officials discussing that?
Thiel: Money is what we need to reduce the ratios between adults and students. I think there's a lot of hope that with the Biden administration, there'll be significant aid to states to be able to put those resources into our schools. But right now, that's a big question mark.
Tribune: Would it makes sense to shift those teachers who are vulnerable into a remote-learning-only situation and move the less vulnerable teachers into in-person instruction?
Thiel: That's one of the things that we're asking for, as we do return to live instruction or begin small instances of live instruction for limited numbers of kids, that it would be on a volunteer basis.
And what we know from looking at other districts is a lot of families aren't coming back when there are opportunities for live instruction. So part of this is the logistics of all of that: how do you shift without knowing who's coming back live?
Tribune: Why not have classrooms in tents outside?
Thiel: We don't have any position on teaching in outside spaces or not. We are definitely open to talking about creative solutions.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.