WEA: Teachers, district differ on key issues
COVID-19 concerns and the classroom were front and center once again in Woodburn this past week.
Dozens of Woodburn Education Association members along with students and staff staged a morning rally Oct. 9 in advance of the union's next mediation, which is scheduled for Tuesday. The group waved signs on Mount Hood Avenue/Highway 211 near its intersection with Pacific Highway 99E, urging motorists to honk for education.
A motorcade rally then set out with the WEA members doing most of the honking as they rolled west to Front Street, through downtown Woodburn onto Settlemier Avenue/Boones Ferry Road and then to the Woodburn School District office, which was closed since Friday was an inservice day.
Teachers say the crux of the issue is that the district has not made safety enough of a priority, and it has ignored the concerns union officials have put forth.
"We want the community to understand that the district has refused to prioritize safety for our students and staff," WEA Vice President Tony Salm said. "So far, all of our efforts to this end have been met with resistance. They continue to insist on the right to require educators to work onsite, which is why we've decided that it's time to put the community on alert. We can't have a safe and healthy community without safe and healthy teachers and students."
Salm said 88% of the WEA members who voted on the issue pledged to participate in a strike if necessary. He estimated that that 88% amounts to roughly 70% of the entire district.
"We need to be taken more seriously about education," Salm said.
One issue, he explained, is that the union requested information about the number of teachers, staff and students in the district who had tested positive for COVID-19. Salm said the district declined to furnish any numbers. Union officials said that knowledge is especially important in Woodburn, which has seen relatively high infection rates in general.
"We did make that request, and we are trying to figure out why they declined," Salm said. "Other locals (district unions) have made that same request and received an answer."
A news release issued Oct. 8 by WEA President Kathy Kuftin noted that WEA surveyed teachers in March about health factors that might increase their risk, or their students' risk, of complications from COVID-19. In that survey, 24% of teachers indicated that they have at least one condition placing them in a high-risk category, according to CDC guidance. Among teachers, 37% reported that they live with someone who is high risk.
Additionally, 51% of teachers reported that they are aware of students in their classrooms who have conditions placing them at risk for complications.
The Woodburn ZIP code consistently has one of the highest rates of infection in the state, week after week, with an incidence rate of 234.2 per 100,000 in the two weeks between Sept. 20 and Oct. 3, according to the release. Woodburn's incidence rate per capita since the beginning of the pandemic currently is more than four times that of the state as a whole.
Kuftin said much of the concerns stem around the district calling teachers into situations where only essential and voluntary staff should be required to participate.
"The language in (the contract) is leaving the door open for calling in teachers," she said. "Other districts have been more successful and responsive to their communities. With the high COVID rate in this community — a rate that has been consistently high — the probablity (of infection) is higher with fact to face contact, just like it is in nursing.
"We just want them to be safe, respectful and responsible."
Kuftin and Salm also argued that educators don't have adequate time to develop high-quality curriculum for distance learning.
"Woodburn educators are working harder than ever to deliver quality instruction under trying circumstances," Kuftin said. "ODE guidance for districts recommend over and over that educators need significantly more time for preparing quality lessons for distance instruction — time that WSD has thus far been unwilling to grant. The amount of time allowed in Woodburn is significantly less than in other districts, sometimes nearly 60% less."
WSD and the union's Tuesday mediation is expected to take place with the help of the State Conciliators Office.
Teachers and the district remain apart on other key issues as well. WEA officials assert that other school districts are providing additional days of paid sick leave or other safety nets for educators to make sure teachers can stay home when they are sick, stressing that such measures are vital for keeping schools and communities safe.
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