School nurses back teachers, warn of unreliable COVID-19 data
The Portland Association of Teachers union says it's given up on trying to work with Portland Public Schools on schedule changes for educator workload relief, but now, the union is fighting another battle.
On Jan. 12, amid a surge in coronavirus cases that caused student and staff absences and led the district to temporarily close several schools, PPS sent teachers a letter, suggesting some were coordinating to call out sick.
"I hear and see how you are leaning in to cover for each other and support our students in extraordinary circumstances," PPS Chief of Human Resources, Sharon Reese, wrote in a letter to teachers. "The District is experiencing a high volume of last-minute educator absences, and a number of schools have had to rapidly transition to temporary distance learning, negatively impacting students, families, and our communities. While we certainly understand that some last-minute absences are inevitable during the pandemic, there have been a few circumstances surrounding some absences that are concerning."
Reese said the majority of teachers are taking approved leave and showing up for students, but noted "regular reports of educators being asked by colleagues to call-in sick with the intention of causing the district to close schools," amounting to illegal union practices.
"So we need to be clear: It is unlawful for educators to participate in any sort of coordinated action to be absent for anything other than a legitimate reason under District policy," Reese added.
The letter also scolded some teachers for allegedly doing "union supported activities during paid work time."
The district's letter to teachers came the week after Portland Association of Teachers — the union representing PPS educators — sent a blunt message to its members after union bargaining sessions with the district fell apart: Look out for yourselves, because the district won't.
"In the meantime, given the ongoing staffing crisis, we can only recommend that educators set personal boundaries which allow them to persevere until conditions improve," the Jan. 3 message stated. "Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup — we are not serving our students, our communities, or ourselves by careening to our own breaking points. We must all set realistic expectations of ourselves, and support our colleagues in doing the same. It is OK to say, 'this is all I can do' and let that be enough."
The union said it would shift focus to "fully implementing our COVID-19 safety agreements and making sure we do everything we can to keep school staff and students as safe as possible during this wave of the pandemic."
As coronavirus cases in Oregon surged to record levels, PPS processed a bevy of teacher absences and requests for substitute teachers that outpaced the available pool. PPS has repeatedly said substitute teachers have been in short supply since the beginning of the school year. The wave of staff and student illnesses led to temporary school closures, sending kids back to distance learning. From Jan. 6 to 14, PPS announced the closure of 11 schools due in large part to teachers absences.
This wasn't the only district dealing with a wave of school closures. Parkrose School District briefly closed all campuses during the second week in January. The following week, Centennial School District did the same, as districts in nearby Washington County also announced several campuses would move to distance learning. Each district has a different union.
While some teachers say the district demonized them over the union's cries for help, then pivoted to blaming them for school closures, the teachers union has found support among another employee group: health care providers.
Three dozen nurses with the Multnomah Education Service District signed a letter to the school district's administration on Jan. 16 in support of PPS teachers, asking the district to invest in more school health services and take student and staff safety more seriously. The letter said the district isn't fully recognizing the risks of Oregon's omicron surge, the shortage of school nurses to respond to COVID-19 cases, or the realities of school environments.
"We are the Registered Nurses who serve students at Portland Public Schools. We support our teacher colleagues in their efforts to make Portland schools safer for our students," the letter reads. "We are experiencing the worst outbreak of disease since the onset of the pandemic. Messaging that schools are safe — without taking the steps to make them safe — does not keep children safe. Media statements from PPS repeatedly claim that the district is not closing schools due to the spread of COVID-19, but rather due to a shortage of staff. These statements are blaming teachers for taking sick time. But schools are short staffed because so many educators are sick or quarantined, or have families of their own to care for who are sick. Teachers should be supported rather than blamed. While we acknowledge the value of in-person school for students, we are urgently concerned about the health and well-being of school communities during this surge in disease."
Perhaps most concerning was the nurses' admission that resources are too few and data collection is behind.
"The PPS community needs to know that there are too few school nurses and that we cannot keep up with the positive COVID cases in our schools. There are so many exposures and cases in PPS schools that, despite our best efforts, the district's COVID-19 tracking data is woefully behind. The result is that the information that PPS leaders are using for decision-making is out of date and inaccurate," the 36 nurses wrote in the letter.
The school district responded to the letter on Jan. 18, noting the health and safety measures in place, including an increased contract with MESD this year, to bring in more school nurses.
"Yesterday afternoon, we received a letter signed by a group of Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) nurses, about one-third of whom are not assigned to a PPS school, calling into question the health and safety measures across PPS schools," Jonathan Garcia, chief of staff for PPS, stated. "We want to take this opportunity to remind our families, students, staff and the broader community about the health and safety protocols in place to protect students and staff and thank our school-based staff for their diligence and dedication to making our school environments safe."
Among those health and safety measures: HEPA filters in all classrooms and cafeterias; a supply of over 100,000 KN95 masks for staff who request them; 1 million age-appropriate masks made available to students to date, on-site COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students and staff, as well as weekly asymptomatic screen testing.
PPS announced on Jan. 11 that although some school campuses would be closed, extracurricular activities, including sports, at those schools, could resume, as long as safety measures like masking are in place.
PPS asks students and teachers not to show up on campus if they have any cold or flu-like symptoms, unless they test negative for COVID-19.
Basis for bad blood
The basis for the public fallout between teachers and the Portland School District began last summer.
The union said it tried to initiate talks with the district in August, before the fall return to school. Negotiations didn't happen until late November, and continued into December right before winter break.
The union wanted to cut in-person learning by a few hours each week, to free up time for teacher planning, preparation and grading. PAT noted students are each at drastically different academic levels, requiring more effort from teachers to deliver appropriate instruction and in some cases, deliver legally required services like individualized education plans for some students. The two groups reached a stalemate after the last bargaining session on Dec. 17.
"After (five) sessions of bargaining, it became abundantly clear that the District wasn't willing to offer any significant workload relief for educators, or any meaningful improvements in student safety or student academic/emotional support," the Jan. 3 letter to union members states.
Amid talks between the two groups, parents were anxiously awaiting news of mid-year school schedule changes. Some parents rallied against teachers, saying any attempts to cut hours from the school week served only teachers while squarely disregarding students' needs during the pandemic.
Despite the lack of resolution, one of the requests from the union bargaining sessions could come to fruition. The PPS Board of Education is considering approval of a school climate reset day on Jan. 31.
This story has been updated to include a response from PPS, and to clarify the positions of the school-based nurses mentioned.
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