COVID-19 canaries in a classroom?
"I hope we are not the canaries in the coal mine!'
Special-education teacher Chris Hatch addressed an organized gathering of teachers on the morning of July 21, in the parking lot of Lord High School at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.
Hatch joined Woodburn Education Association President Kathy Kuftin, Vice President Tony Salm and scores of teachers as they rallied in the name of safety.
The teachers union at Lord High School recently voted 93.75% in favor of entering the school year with a strictly distance-learning model in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen record numbers of positive and presumptive cases registered in the state in recent weeks.
While districts across the state are developing reentry models for the school year, some of which include hybrid models that mix in-person and distance learning, teachers in the Woodburn area, including those at Lord High School, are emphatic that wading into the school year with a distance-learning model is paramount to their safety and the safety of students and staff.
"We want to see some sort of reasonable metric; we want to see a transparent, objective metric to drive the decision," Hatch said. "We've been before ODE (Oregon Department of Education), WESD (Willamette Education Service District) and OYA (Oregon Youth Authority) since April requesting this."
As Kuftin and Salm addressed the parking lot rally from the bed of a pickup, many groans were heard at the mention of teachers being told to sign waivers entering the school year, presumably for legal purposes should they become ill.
"No waiver; no human sacrifice," Salm said.
Kuftin led a chant of "Keep your waiver! We won't sign!"
The teachers, who originally assembled in the parking lot of the strip mall housing Dollar Tree and Dutch Bros coffee at the corner of highways 99E and 214 before cruising up to MacLaren, fired up their message-laden vehicles in the Lord High School lot and formed a caravan out onto 99E, forging north, then hooking around at Patrick Way and back to 214 west to the interchange near Woodburn High School, rolling through downtown on Front Street out to Centennial Park and back down Settlemeier Avenue.
There were many toots and curious onlookers along the route.
"Lord High School (teachers) are being forced back to work this week in spite of inadequate and incomplete safety measures and protocols," Salm said. "Woodburn teachers and classified staff are very concerned that the same thing will be required of them very soon."
Hatch, who is a representative for the Willamette Valley Education Association, noted in a July 22 news release that members of the WVEA held a vote in which 15 of 16 educators at Lord High School supported starting the school year with a 100% distance-learning model rather than immediately returning educators to face-to-face instruction with youth.
Educators cited concerns about safety of students and staff as the reason for their support of distance learning, with specific concerns regarding rushed safety plans, inadequate personal protective equipment and the continuing spike in COVID-19 cases across Oregon.
WEA members had a similar vote last week in which 81.3% of those polled favored the distance-learning model to begin the school year.
On Friday Woodburn School District Superintendent Oscar Gilson announced that schools would begin the 2020-21 year with comprehensive distance learning. Salm said on Sunday that WEA was pleased with that move, but Lord High School, a different entity, had not undertaken similar measures.
Teachers planned another rally for Monday, which will assemble at the same locations but then caravan to Salem to be part of a larger rally at the Capitol.
"WVEA has tried to engage with the district around reopening for months and we were met with silence — and now with just days of rushed planning they expect students and educators to feel safe being back in the classroom," Hatch said. "We've already had to delay returning to the classroom because an employee was exposed to COVID-19 during an orientation at work. If the district can't keep people safe before students are even back in the classroom, how on Earth will they do it once our classrooms are full?"
Hatch said teachers feel politics is prevailing over science. He itemized a metric proposed by educators to determine safe return to the classroom within the hybrid model:
1. A 14-day downward trend in cases statewide;
2. Fewer than 100 new cases per day for seven days;
3. Fourteen days with zero new positive cases of staff and youth inside MYCF facility.
He added that ODE, WESD and OYA contend that equity of learning opportunities for students is the crux of the need to have in-person teaching.
But teachers feel that safety should trump equity, and returning to traditional education methods won't be practical until safety is achieved.
"I fail to understand how putting incarcerated youth — most of whom are students of color — at risk is equity. ODE, OYA and WESD are treating these children like guinea pigs," said Lord High School teacher Michael Zinkowski.
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