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Personnel shortages, student angst mark beginning of return to in-person teaching.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students enter Kellogg Middle School in Portland for the first day in September.Students across Portland were some of the most heavily impacted by COVID-19 restrictions that carried over into 2021.

In April, after more than a year of attending school remotely, Portland Public Schools students headed back to classrooms, sort of. With a hybrid learning schedule, elementary students attended school for less than two-and-a-half hours per day, four days per week. Middle and high schoolers were face-to-face with their teachers and peers for just two and a half hours per day, twice per week. The rest of the time was spent learning remotely from home.

By the end of the 2020-21 school year, high schools had resumed holding graduation ceremonies, albeit outdoors at Providence Park. School-based athletic activities and clubs had resumed, with restrictions still in place. The ease back into normal activities, even if on a heavily modified basis, was a sign of things to come.

With teen vaccinations approved in May 2021, a district-wide mandate for employee vaccinations, a statewide mask mandate and a blueprint from the state for reopening schools, Portland Public Schools opened its doors to full-time, in-person learning in September.

The reopening got off to a rocky start. Guidelines dictated that any student or staff member exposed to COVID-19 at school would have to quarantine for at least 10 days, unless vaccinated. That left hundreds of students at home in quarantine during the first month, due to on-site exposures.

In November, the state announced a forthcoming schools-based COVID-19 testing program that would allow kids to remain in school after exposure to the virus, with a negative test.

Aside from the ongoing pandemic, another issue was brewing. Like many school districts in Oregon, PPS kicked off the 2021-22 school year with a severe shortage of educators, bus drivers, substitute teachers and custodial staff, along others. Teachers reported heavier workloads as they tried to catch students up on lost skills and progress after more than a year of non-traditional learning. Understaffed schools meant educators were stretched thin, covering for other classrooms when a substitute wasn't available.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Graduating seniors line up to receive diplomas at the 2021 commencement ceremony for Ida B. Wells High School in Portland. The latest state data shows high school freshmen falling behind in credits needed to graduate.The return to school was heralded as a return to healthy, critical socialization and structure for most students, but many struggled with the reintegration.

PPS reported its suicide screenings for students increased substantially, while achievement and other academic benchmarks showed students, especially non-white students, were falling behind.

Things reached a boiling point in November, when the teachers union demanded workload relief, saying educators were burnt out, not given enough time in the work week to plan, modify curriculum or grade assignments, and quitting the profession at an accelerated rate.

By winter break 2021, the teachers union and school district had not come to an agreement about how to modify K-12 school schedules to give teachers more time for planning and grading.


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