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Portland Public Schools set to negotiate with teachers union over how much in-person time to cut from current year

PMG FILE PHOTO - As Portland Public Schools heads into negotiations with its teachers union, the Portland Association of Teachers, the district is likely to agree to cut some hours, if not days, from the current 2021-22 school year calendar. After what seemed like a stalemate between a Portland teachers union and Portland Public Schools over how to give teachers workload relief by cutting some in-person learning hours for the rest of the year, the two groups will meet again for a bargaining session Monday, Dec. 6.

Two consecutive meeting sessions earlier this week between PPS officials and representatives from the Portland Association of Teachers' bargaining team yielded no firm plan or agreement.

At issue: The teachers union wants to see in-person school days and hours reduced for all students to allow teachers more time to plan and prepare. While the district and teachers union don't agree on how much to cut, they both agree that the district is facing severe staffing shortages, leaving current staff stretched too thin.

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said the district has roughly 175 unfilled positions.

"That means every day in schools, there are classes without teachers. Administrators, counselors, English Language Learner teachers, reading specialists, etc. are filling in during their planning time, or instead of doing their own jobs."

Students aren't doing well either.

Data provided by PPS Deputy Superintendent of Instruction and School Communities, Shawn Bird, shows a decline in attendance this year, as well as a spike in the number of "D" and "F" grades, especially among Black, Native and Latino students, as well as those with disabilities and those who are still learning English.

When schools closed in March 2020 and students transitioned to distance learning, many fell behind. In fact, statewide, the number of ninth graders on track to graduate high school on time plummeted last year, compared to pre-COVID years.

Emotional adjustment also has proven difficult for students.

PPS reported a major spike in the number of suicide screenings conducted this year: more than 225 in the first quarter of this school year, compared with 91 in the first quarter of 2019. There's also been an increase in fights, weapons brought to school and a well-documented lack of substitute teachers.

The school district recently tried to address teachers' requests for more planning time by transitioning Nov. 12 to a staff development day on short notice. The district also is trying to address its substitute teacher shortage, offering financial incentives to new hires, but the solutions won't materialize quickly enough.

Middle schoolers may be some of the most impacted.

"For sixth graders, their last normal year was when they were in fourth grade," Bird pointed out during a meeting with teachers union reps, saying they "need some more time to adjust."

Teachers say students' needs have grown and their learning loss takes more planning and staff resources to address. The union proposes elementary and middle schoolers have a two-hour early release or late arrival each week, with six days on campus switched to staff planning days.

At the high school level, the union wants to keep students at home once a week for a day of self-led or "asynchronous" learning, with tutorial or "flex time." Those days would provide individual or small group instruction to students who need extra support.

District leaders say the request for dramatic calendar changes keeps kids out of school too much, at a time when students need more in-person learning to make up for lost time, not less.

"We do not believe that dramatically reducing in-person learning for students is in the best interest of our students, their families and our community," Bird said in a statement released by PPS via Twitter earlier this week.

Instead of the union's proposal, PPS suggested swapping one traditional school day a month in January, February and March for a half-day, where middle and high school students would receive social-emotional learning lessons, then have study hall sessions until lunch. Afterward, they could either remain on campus and catch up on work and studying, or go home.

Union members didn't favor that option.

"Your data shows this school year is having an incredibly difficult impact on students and your response is 'well, we could pretty much tweak it a little bit and continue doing the same thing,'" John Berkey, a teachers union bargaining team member, told PPS staff Nov. 30. "All these things are an indication that the school year is not working."

It's unclear whether any compromise or agreement will come out of the next bargaining session. Portland teachers union members have warned that if nothing is done to ease the stress and workload burden for educators, the district could see teachers quitting midyear, exacerbating the current staffing shortage.

This story has been updated since it first published, to note the correct day of the bargaining session and include additional input.

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