Over the past two weeks, the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board has made one thing clear: It wants high school students to return to in-person learning on a full-time basis before the end of the 2020-21 school year.
In pushing for this to happen, however, the board and school district — as well as the community at large — found themselves in a confusing saga of approved and rescinded motions, pushback from employee unions and confusion on the part of families who weren't sure what the immediate future held for students.
On the heels of a special board meeting Monday, April 26, Superintendent Kathy Ludwig clarified Wednesday, April 28, in a message to families that all students will remain in hybrid learning for the remainder of the year.
"We know there hasn't been universal agreement over the district's decisions from time to time," Ludwig wrote. "But through it all we have never doubted our staff's and parents' commitment to our students' success. … We look forward to finishing the year strong."
A sudden vote
The push from the board to have high school students return to in-person learning for a full five-day week began at an April 19 work session. After Ludwig presented a recommendation for the district to continue hybrid learning for the remainder of the year, citing a number of issues including rising COVID-19 case rates in Clackamas County and logistical concerns related to the state's Ready Schools Safe Learners guidance, board member Dylan Hydes put forward a motion for grades 9-12 to return to in-person learning for five days a week beginning May 3.
In a brief discussion, Ludwig noted that such a proposal would require discussions with the district's two employee unions: the West Linn-Wilsonville Education Association (for licensed employees) and the Oregon School Employees Association (for classified employees).
This was due to the parameters set forth in two separate memorandums of understanding the district signed with WWEA and OSEA before the school year began.
As Ludwig noted at the April 19 meeting, that MOUs — which are in place through the end of the school year — only covered comprehensive distance learning and hybrid models. A change to in-person learning five days a week would require changes to the MOUs and, thus, agreement from the unions.
Nonetheless, the board voted 3-2 in favor of the motion.
"I feel like it's a risk I have to take on behalf of our young people," board vice chair Chelsea King said.
Change in course
The next day, however, Ludwig announced that the unions wouldn't sign on to this plan and the board would reconvene in a special meeting April 26 to discuss next steps.
"In conversations today, both the licensed association (WWEA) and the classified association (OSEA) informed us that they would not amend the current MOUs again at this point in the school year," Ludwig wrote in a message to families. "Therefore we are unable to move to a Fully Onsite Model as directed by the Board."
Ludwig elaborated on the union discussions during the special meeting April 26.
"The next day one of the first moves I made was to contact our association leader, because to begin working on a directive with such a short timeline would mean that week, we'd have to put all the plans in place to begin informing our community to get ready for that kind of return," Ludwig said. "In conversations with both associations, it was expressed that neither association at this time, for the remainder of the year, would be interested in reopening the MOU."
Ludwig noted that case rates in the county had climbed even higher in the week since the board's vote, and that Clackamas County Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present advised against any increase to in-person learning time — particularly at high schools "where we are seeing spread during school-related activities."
Further, Ludwig said there was pushback from the unions on adjusting to yet another new learning model at this point in the calendar.
Hydes asked whether the union positions would change following a drop in case rates, but Ludwig said case counts were just one of the concerns brought forward by the unions. In turn, Hydes asked for more information about the negotiations between Ludwig and the unions.
"Was it, 'Hey, guys, come on, we can do this. What do I need to do to make this safe?' Or was it, 'Wanna go back full time? Oh, you don't? OK, I'll report back,'" Hydes said.
"I will state what I consistently stated to this board, this community, to our association leaders and staff: that I've always worked to support students, to support any way that we could bring them back on campus safely," Ludwig said. "Because of that advocacy, we were one of the first districts in the Portland metro area to start co-curricular activities in September. … We were also one of the first school districts in the Portland metro area to begin limited in-person instruction as early as October."
She then specifically addressed Hydes' question about the substance of the conversations with the unions.
"There was no conversation, to use your words, where I said, 'Hey, guys, let's just not do this,' or you know just this kind of loose 'let's give up and give in' mentality," Ludwig said. "It has always been: do the best we can to increase time for students on campus."
In the end, the board voted unanimously to rescind its April 19 motion.
"It does not seem to me that there is benefit to having a directive that is contrary to the CDC, contrary to our county health advice and is inconsistent with the Ready Schools Safe manner," board member Ginger Fitch said.
"It doesn't change the fact that the board asked for this," Board Chair Regan Molatore said. "But as long as that motion stands, it is asking our district to direct personnel to use their resources toward accomplishing a task, which we now know we cannot accomplish."
Hydes put forth another motion April 26, which stated that high school students would return to in-person learning five days a week if case rates in the county dropped below 200 per 100,000 people. Board member Christy Thompson was in favor, but the motion ultimately failed by a 2-2 vote (King had to leave the meeting early and did not vote).
Hydes delivered extended remarks near the end of the April 26 meeting, which he also posted on his Facebook page.
"It's time to put a voice to the frustration of many in our community regarding the unions' conduct since this pandemic began," Hydes said. "Dr. Ludwig and this district have done everything humanly possible to keep our teachers safe. … I know every time the union has come to our district and said, 'We are concerned with X,' Dr. Ludwig and her team have found a way to address that concern in a meaningful way."
He said that while he's strongly in favor of unions, in this case "union leadership has demonstrated little interest in returning to in-person learning and has instead looked for every reason not to return to in-person instruction and provided little explanation for their intransigence."
But his message also was critical of the district.
"The unions should hear from the community the way the board has for the past eight months," Hydes said. "Maybe if they did, the unions would take a different position. We don't know, though, because we, the district, have been shielding the unions from this for the past eight months and continue to do so.
"People are losing faith in our district that schools will open full-time in the fall. While I believe we will be open full-time in the fall, recent history is shaking that confidence."
The union perspective
Jennifer Cerasin, a teacher at Arts & Technology High School and president of the WWEA, told Pamplin Media Group that concerns from teachers in the district were being misinterpreted as selfish.
"It's not about safety so much for the teachers," Cerasin said. "We are, for the most part, vaccinated. (It's about) safety for students and not wanting students quarantining (if they're exposed)."
Further, Cerasin emphasized that many teachers feared a return to in-person learning five days a week would impact the well-being of students who chose to remain at home.
"The way we're set up now, no matter how many kids come back to the classroom, we'll have some learning from home every day," Cerasin said. "So with the increase in students here, the ones at home won't get the attention and services we've given in hybrid. We will not be able to do our best for those children."
It would have been a different story, she said, if the district had planned for full-time, in-person learning six months ago, which could have included bringing in additional staff members to work with the kids who continued remote learning.
Cerasin added that there were ways to improve the situation for high school students — seniors in particular — without amending the MOU.
"Seniors, we can organize fun things for them and do fun things for them," Cerasin said. "But coming back to school every day, I don't know that that's going to make a difference."
The union leader also said teachers' perspectives were being mischaracterized.
"The biggest misunderstanding is teachers don't care, and we are just trying to block things from happening, and that is absolutely not true," Cerasin said. "Teachers know from day-to-day experiences … they know better than anyone what will work best.
"It's not about personal safety or preferences. … In most cases they're saying, 'this is what we need to do to get through the year.'"
As for Hydes' concern about schools reopening for full-time, in-person learning in the fall, Cerasin said the union remains committed to that goal.
"People think the unions are going to block us from going back to school in the fall," she said. "There's absolutely no conversation about that, no talk of that."
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