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A group of teachers and parents held a memorial for educators and students who have died from COVID-19.

COURTESY PHOTO: CHRISTINE WILLEY - A memorial to honor lives lost to COVID-19 was promptly taken down.

Six hundred pink flags covered the lawn of the West Linn-Wilsonville district office Sunday, Jan. 10, accompanied by signs that showed an opposition to the district's plan to return to in-person learning. The memorial, meant to honor the lives of 600 educators and students who died of COVID-19 in the U.S., doubled as a warning of what might come when the district reopens.

"How many yearbook pages do we reserve for memorials?" one sign read.

Christine Willey, a teacher and parent in the district, helped organize the event.

She and other teachers are concerned about the timing of the district's transition to hybrid learning. On the heels of Gov. Kate Brown's late December announcement that health guidelines would be altered to make it easier for students to return to in-person learning, WL-WV targeted Feb. 8 as a start date.

"Our point was: let's keep everybody safe … we don't think anyone should return without having the vaccine while the numbers are as high as they are," Willey said.

She gathered a group of teachers, parents and students to memorialize the lives lost — and make a statement.

"We're kind of making a point when we say it because we don't want to lose our lives," Willey said. She emphasized that she doesn't want students or parents to die due to a return to in-person learning, either.

Two hours after the group set up the memorial, Willey drove past the site and it was gone. COURTESY PHOTO: CHRISTINE WILLEY - The group that organized the event opposes the return to in-person learning.

"I was pretty upset about that," she said.

She and her family went back after midnight, this time with ribbons and signs that only mentioned honoring the dead. When she drove by on a break the next day, that memorial was gone, too.

"The display was removed once it was brought to the district's attention," Director of Communications Andrew Kilstrom said. "The district supports our community's right to voice opinions or concerns, but we do require that it is done off of school grounds."

He said the district understands there are an array of concerns in the community and that the concerns are heard and considered with great care.

"I've decided that it's reckless to go back when the numbers are the way they are," Willey said. "I will not be reckless with my life, my family's life or the lives of my students."

She said the decision to go back to school in-person is also an equity issue.

"This disease is affecting people of color much more than white people. That's another reason I don't think we should open up before there's a vaccine," she said.

Willey, who teaches fourth grade, also feels the elementary teachers aren't being treated fairly in the reopening plan. While elementary students will begin returning Feb. 8, there are currently no plans in place for when middle and high school students will return.

"The way we feel right now is we're the guinea pigs," she said.

The district's plan is to have students transition to hybrid learning by grade level, starting with kindergarteners on Feb. 8. That leaves the elementary teachers unable to get both doses of the vaccine — and wait the recommended two weeks for the vaccine to take effect — before they return to on-site teaching.

Mashawna Miller, a middle school science teacher at Meridian Creek, shares Willey's concerns.

"My first main concern is that there's this narrative going around that educators don't want to go back to work and I find that offensive," she said.

Miller said it isn't a question of whether teachers want to work or not — after all, they've been working this whole time on a remote basis.

"We really want to be in the classrooms with our students … but even going back to in-person learning is going to be a hybrid situation," Miller said.

In other words, it's not going to be the typical classroom setting. All instruction and interaction will be done from a six-foot distance, behind masks and sometimes plexiglass.

"All we've ever really wanted is to go back when it's safe, and safe to us means having both doses of the vaccine and having our community metrics met," Miller said.

The West Linn-Wilsonville Education Association conducted a survey on teachers' thoughts on returning to in-person learning.

According to the survey, 87% of respondents felt unsafe returning under current circumstances and 17% of that 87% said they'd take an unpaid leave of absence if asked to return.

"Vaccines are right around the corner. I don't understand the push," Miller said.

Miller said some who support in-person learning cite outdated studies on transmission and mental health issues as reasons to return to school.

"There is a mental health argument that I can sympathize with," she said.

But Miller noted that mental health issues caused by the pandemic can be treated.

"Death is permanent," she said.

Miller, who was at the memorial, was also offended that it was taken down.

"I just think that if it was a memorial for any other group … it wouldn't be removed," she said.

Fred Groves, a parent in the district, said the risks of returning to in-person learning outweigh the costs.

Groves was a middle and high school teacher in the Portland Public Schools before making the transition to staying at home with his twins five years ago. The twins, now in kindergarten, are in the district's fully-online program and will not be among those going back to school in February.

He said his concern is mainly for the teachers, given that the virus is primarily airborne and doesn't seem to infect children as readily.

"The school year's fractured already, beyond repair," he said. "I'm just concerned it's not going to help."

He didn't participate in the demonstration at the district office but said he supports the teachers not wanting to return to in-person learning.

Groves added that he understands not everyone is in the same position as he is, and for them, staying home for learning might be harder.

"I have lots of things to be grateful for — I can stay home with my kids, I'm a teacher… not everyone's in my boat so it's easy for me to say these things," he said.

Kinsley Dart, a sophomore at Wilsonville High School, said she doesn't agree with the demonstration. She believes students should go back to in-person learning, both for academic and mental health reasons.

"I'm very ready to be back — definitely the most ready I've been," she said. "Staying motivated for online school is really difficult."

She said that sentiment is commonly held among her peers.

"My friends, my brother, we all are on the same page. We're just getting by," she said.

Dart said she knows teachers are doing their best in distance learning. Still, she feels she's learned about 50% of what she should have in the almost 10 months she's been out of a traditional classroom.

"I just can't learn through a screen. I'm a hands-on learner for sure," Dart said.

All that being said, she's not happy with the district's reopening plan either. She feels the district should have announced a start date for middle and high school students at the last board meeting.

"After that last meeting I really don't have a lot of hope left," she said.

Dart said she and her peers feel they can go back to school safely.

"We're ready to be back and we're willing to do what we need to … we'll take what we can get," she said. "We'll mask up and we'll go to school two days a week."

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