Portland Public Schools and its teachers' union, the Portland Association of Teachers, negotiated through the weekend on a plan to reopen school classrooms.
Over the weekend, Elizabeth Thiel, president of the association, and other school union leaders sent a letter to PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill "to highlight any issues we know will be detrimental to the safety of staff and students under the current plan to return to in-person instruction by March 29."
Three issues were listed, including the teachers' demand to have five days in schools after spring break to prepare for students' return. That would put students back in buildings another week after spring break ends. That's one week later than the district has proposed.
But either way, the difference left between the two sides suggests Portland will not witness the explosive fights that other parts of the country have seen over a return to school.
"We are still in bargaining," Thiel tells WW. "I think we are making good progress."
The PAT was one of several Oregon teachers' unions that expressed concerns over the safety of returning to school even after receiving priority for a COVID-19 vaccine. Among the concerns PAT highlighted last month was ventilation. (That's no longer on the list, after the district agreed to purchase a HEPA filter for every classroom.) And now a dwindling list of safety concerns suggests teachers are indeed preparing to return after Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools open.
The union's letter offers a reason for the five prep days:
"Educators and support staff need time to prepare learning spaces, develop and then operationalize safety protocols, and prepare to meet the unique needs of students who have all been impacted by the last year of disruption," the March 13 letter states. "Further, we must ensure adherence to guidance from ODE which hasn't even been released yet."
Also mentioned: a request to hire "additional permanent, full-time union-represented custodians." The explanation? "The district's current staffing model will limit us to the district's long-standing 'Moderately Dingy' standard, which is not safe or appropriate," the letter states.
The other issue is a request for four weeks to prepare and practice new bus routes that will be required.
The teachers' union contract negotiations cover only the first of those requests—the timing of a return. Teachers' union officials say they are still negotiating over additional language, including the right of teachers to be allowed to pick assignments away from school, if they have household members with health concerns who don't yet have access to vaccines.
A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the letter Saturday.
Late Sunday, Thiel said she was hopeful the two sides could reach a tentative agreement by the end of the weekend.