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Portland Association of Teachers asks Portland Public Schools to reduce in-person learning for the rest of the year

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students enter Kellogg Middle School in Portland for the first day back in September 2021. Portland teachers are asking the district to consider late starts or early release days for K-8 students, as a way to reduce the workload for teachers for the rest of the 2021-22 school year.A proposal to reduce in-person learning hours for Portland students is getting pushback from parents and Portland Public Schools.

Portland teachers say they are facing severe burnout and a lack of time and resources to do their jobs. Their solution? Reduce non-essential meetings, teacher evaluations and most importantly, reduce the number of hours and days kids are in school.

The Portland Association of Teachers has proposed a two-hour early release or late arrival every week for K-8 students in PPS, while removing six days of in-person learning and instead making them planning days for educators. The teachers union also wants high schoolers to stay home one day per week, preferably Wednesday and switch them to "self-directed" school days and remove three days of in-person school days to instead make them teacher planning days.

The district had previously noted that asynchronous or self-led days would fall on Fridays, but union reps said they never specified a particular day of the week, though Wednesdays would be the most logical.

While some parents and district leaders have suggested that the proposal wouldn't meet minimum state standards for instructional time, the teachers union feels otherwise.

"We are 100% confident that that day meets the legal standard to be instructional hours," Steve Lancaster, who serves on the Portland Association of Teachers bargaining team, said Tuesday afternoon. "We are not talking about not meeting the legal standard for the number of hours that are required for students."

Lancaster and others from the team clarified that if the district switches to self-led days once a week, students would still have access to their teachers in morning or afternoon hours.

The proposed changes come as part of the union's right to negotiate working conditions with the school district. Bargaining representatives for the union were scheduled to meet with PPS leaders Nov. 29 and 30.

Ahead of those meetings, a Nov. 24 letter to Portland Association of Teachers members hinted at the requests for the major calendar changes, citing severe staffing shortages.

"Rather than having more resources and supports to meet these increased needs, this year our schools have LESS," the statement from the PAT bargaining team read. "We are facing an historic staffing shortage, and hundreds of crucial positions in our schools remain unfilled. Educators are stretched beyond capacity trying to fill the gaps. For example, our counselors, social workers, and academic support teachers are frequently being assigned to cover classes, rather than providing specific supports for students that are so urgently needed."

The union warned that PPS could see more teachers leave if something doesn't change.

"Normally, we would have a slower build-up to bargaining. But with the intense pressure so many of you are experiencing, and with so many educators feeling such despair, we're worried that mid-year resignations will continue to climb if we do not get right to the bargaining table," the Nov. 24 letter said.

PPS officials acknowledged the strain teachers have faced but pushed back on the union's requests. The district noted that the union's proposal would reduce in-school learning by about 20 days for high schoolers and roughly 10 days for elementary and middle school students.

"While we share the urgency to address issues impacting our educator's (sic) experience this school year, 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," Shawn Bird, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities for PPS, said in a statement released by the district via Twitter Tuesday afternoon. Bird said PPS does agree that non-critical meetings for teachers need to be eliminated.

Bird argued Tuesday afternoon during a meeting with the union bargaining team that reducing in-person instruction would exacerbate a documented slide in student achievement, attendance and learning that has occurred since COVID-19 brought on distance learning in Oregon.

"We have attendance data from this year so far that shows … attendance rates are down," Bird said, noting data is worse among students of color. He said sending high school students home once a week will only weaken overall school engagement.

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