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A Union Head Says Portland Teachers Didn’t Ask to Cut in Line for Vaccines—and They Won’t Automatically Return to Classrooms in Gratitude

"It is a terrible position to be put into," says Elizabeth Thiel.

For some Portland teachers, the gift of a COVID-19 vaccination feels more like an offer they can't refuse.

Last month, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown propelled schoolteachers and staff to the front of the state's COVID-19 vaccine line. Educators started receiving COVID shots on Jan. 25; Oregonians 80 years and older must wait until Feb. 7.

Brown chose to vaccinate teachers before seniors—a decision at odds with the priorities of 45 other states—because she wants Oregon students back in classrooms ASAP this spring.

It was a gamble: Brown bet that the bad publicity she'd receive for delaying vaccines for seniors would be countered by the boost to children languishing at home.

But the awarding of vaccines to teachers is no guarantee they'll resume in-person instruction at Portland Public Schools anytime soon. Instead, it's the start of a protracted fight.

Many teachers remain reluctant to return to the classroom. They fear entering poorly ventilated buildings and bringing the virus home to their loved ones. They believe school reopening will spread disease from kids to parents and grandparents. And they argue that wealthy, white students will more easily return to school buildings—creating separate and unequal education.

Yolanda McKinney, a second grade teacher at Sabin Elementary, has three children of her own and is currently battling breast cancer, so she says she won't be returning to the classroom when given the option—at least not yet.

"If I'm looking at it from a parent standpoint, I would not send [my kids] back into the classroom," McKinney says. "It's scary to think that I could potentially die. I didn't sign up for that. I don't think anyone signed up for that."

Some Portland parents are growing irate at teachers' reluctance. "If teachers get vaccinated, they need to get back to work. They're getting something we all desperately want," said Melissa Oliver-Janiak at a Jan. 31 rally on the steps of Benson Polytechnic High School. "So get the vaccine and do your job."

But teachers have an advantage in this standoff: the backing of two of the most powerful public employee unions in the state, the Oregon Education Association and the Portland Association of Teachers.

Elizabeth Thiel is president of the PAT, which represents 4,500 members in Portland Public Schools. She's aware that getting a vaccination presents a political trap for teachers: If they take the shot and don't return to classrooms, they risk enormous public disapproval.

In a conversation with WW, Thiel says some might risk that anyway.

WW: Obviously, you're aware that a lot of seniors are frustrated that teachers received priority on vaccinations ahead of them. Is that something teachers asked for?

Elizabeth Thiel: We did ask for teachers to be vaccinated before a return to in-person learning. Because that makes sense. We did not ask for a timeline for that to happen at the expense of anybody else. Teachers would much rather have had their parents vaccinated. It has been a very difficult position to be in, to be told you will get the vaccine before others. But it was never a choice presented to us as a union, if this is what we wanted.

Is it what you wanted?

It is not what we wanted. We would have wanted the vaccine decisions to be made based on public health, not on a timeline to be opening schools.

Some people wonder whether Brown was in effect thanking teachers for 25 years of support. Others wonder if her motivation was a little different—that she was in effect trapping teachers into returning by taking away their reason for staying out. What's your take?

I can't speak to the governor's motivations. I had not ever discussed with her personally why she did that. But it certainly feels to a lot of teachers like being put in a terrible position where we've been given a thing that is so needed in our community, that people are literally dying for not having access to, and then told, because we were given this, we need to go into live instruction, even though there are so many unanswered questions and concerns about whether that is going to cause an increase in community spread. It is a terrible position to be put into.

I have heard overwhelmingly from teachers [with] misgivings about being offered a vaccine ahead of people who are much more likely to have immediate health impacts or to die, including teachers' own family members. Educators are upset: "I don't know what this means. I'm getting vaccinated. My spouse, the parent that I live with is not. Can I give away my vaccination?" And that [question] has been clearly met with no: There's no giving somebody else the vaccine. But that's the kind of question that educators have been asking. "Can I have someone come in my place?" and the answer has been no.

What's your advice to teachers who don't want to return to the classroom regarding whether they should receive the vaccination?

It has been made clear to us that the order of vaccinations is not going to change. Refusing the vaccine as an educator, I have no reason to think it will help get it to somebody else faster. My advice to folks is to follow the orders. We would like to contribute to getting vaccines out as quickly as possible. And we're not part of making those plans. So we're cooperating with the directions we are being given.

The union and the school district are negotiating on a memo of understanding under which teachers would return. What are the sticking points?

Our students' families don't have protection against COVID if they're not vaccinated. So educators are hugely concerned that if we bring students together in schools and those students, although they may be asymptomatic, bring that home to families that aren't vaccinated, that opening schools will contribute to the sickness and death of students' family members, and we're particularly concerned that spread is most likely to impact our students who are already the most impacted by COVID. Those who are living in multigenerational homes, whose families are essential workers, who are caring for family members with preexisting conditions.

It's my understanding that PPS can't just order you back.

Around the country, we're seeing cases where districts do order people to come back. And then what happens next is playing out in the news constantly, right? Like in Chicago, they were ordered back. Lake Oswego, teachers were ordered back. And then there are more things that happen after that. Whether that is through organizing or invoking contractual rights. This is new territory for all of us, of course. But absolutely it's going to take teachers' consent at some level in order to open schools. You cannot open schools without teachers.

Sophie Peel contributed reporting to this story.