Street protests are a common sight in Portland. But on Sunday, the most recent demonstration featured children, and it reflected the latest tension in Oregon life: between teachers and parents at loggerheads over when students can return to classrooms.
A few dozen Portland-area parents with the group Open Oregon Schools gathered at Benson Polytechnic School this afternoon in Northeast Portland, demanding the reopening of Oregon's schools sooner than the state has in mind.
Hand-painted signs read, "Occupy the classroom," "Science not screens," and "Shame on you, teacher's union." One woman held a sign, draped with silver chains, that read, "Free the children from the chains of the teachers union!"
Around 60 parents and children attended the rally on the steps of the high school. Five speakers shared stories of how distance learning had negatively affected their families, and focused on deteriorating mental health from prolonged distance learning and social isolation.
Melissa Oliver-Janiak, a recent addition to the group that formed on Facebook and grew into 1,400 members in the metro area, spoke at the rally and blamed several parties, including state officials and the Portland Association of Teachers—the district's union—for allowing teachers not to return to school.
"If teachers get vaccinated, they need to get back to work. They're getting something we all desperately want," Oliver-Janiak said to the small crowd through a black microphone. "So get the vaccine, and do your job."
Portland Public Schools announced its plan last week to reopen elementary and middle schools for a hybrid model in April, giving families the choice to opt out of in-person learning. The district plans to offer short in-person time slots for kids falling behind in classes beginning in early February.
Gov. Kate Brown moved teachers and school staff ahead of seniors for COVID-19 vaccinations, trying to prod teachers back into classrooms. But many teachers aren't gung ho about returning, arguing that reopening will disproportionately harm minority families.
John McGowan, a third grade teacher at Scott Elementary and father of two middle schoolers, says keeping COVID-19 rates down needs to be the priority right now, not kids' socialization. And families of color are more likely to live in multigenerational homes, increasing the possibility of kids taking the coronavirus home to elderly family members.
"My students live with their seniors. That scares me completely that they can bring home COVID-19 to them and lose a loved one," McGowan says. "People of color are most greatly affected by the virus, no question about that."
Parents at the rally argued reopening schools would benefit minority students who have struggled with distance learning.
"I'm most concerned about historically underserved kids. The studies are all clear that the kids suffering the most are Black and brown students," Kim McGair, parent of a freshman at Grant High School, tells WW. "If a family is multigenerational and they feel they don't want to come back yet, they should have that choice. But that risk isn't big enough in my mind to outweigh the harm of what we're experiencing right now with closed schools."
Gov. Brown finds herself in hot water with both sides of the debate. Parents in support of reopening schools scold her for not taking action earlier, and many teachers think she's being careless in allowing districts to decide how and when to reopen.
Oliver-Janiak says her two kids, who both attend Laurelhurst Elementary, are emotionally struggling because of distance learning. She says her son has paralyzing anxiety over being seen on Zoom calls, and admitted he hasn't been logging into learning sessions.
She said the union has done "nothing in the process" and added, "Shame on them all," in reference to district leadership, state officials, and teachers' unions who fight against returning to the classroom.
Sunday's rally was the latest event from a burgeoning movement of irate parents. For more than a month, the statewide Open Oregon Schools Facebook group has been agitating for a return to classrooms.
The group took creative measures to argue kids were being unfairly overlooked by the governor. In a Facebook post dated Nov. 10, a series of events were listed: One event planned for Dec. 15 read, "Pack your kids' Chrome books up and park it at your respective schools!"
On Dec. 17, a post urged parents to ignore logging into class Zoom calls and to call in sick for the kids and use the excuse that the kids are "Sick of distance learning! Sick of staring at a screen! Sick of Zoom calls! Sick of not being prioritized!"
Teachers aren't persuaded. McGowan, who is a union member but says he can't speak for the Portland Association of Teachers, says Brown is listening to a particular community of parents.
"Everybody wants their kids back to school, I just want it to be safe. I think Gov. Brown is listening to the voices of people with money," McGowan says. "I can tell you straight up, people of color don't want entitled, wealthy white people speaking for them."