On March 12, 2020, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown closed public schools to protect Oregonians from a novel coronavirus. The closure was supposed to last two weeks.
One year later, on March 15, Portland Public Schools announced a tentative deal with its teachers' union to bring kids back to classrooms, beginning with kindergarten students on April 1.
The decision to close public schools marked the beginning of COVID times. Few people last year would have predicted that more than half a million Americans would die in the intervening 12 months—or that it would be 12 months before most kids were back in school.
The reopening doesn't mark the end of the pandemic. But it is a notable step in the direction of a new normal. Next month, all students will have the chance to return to class for a couple of hours four days a week.
Overseeing that gradual return to school buildings in the state's largest district is Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. He took the helm of the district in 2017, shortly after a scandal over lead in drinking fountains, and steered PPS into a comparatively placid era. At least until COVID-19 delivered the biggest shock to the public education system in living memory.
Ever since Gov. Brown announced that teachers would receive priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, Guerrero has been at the center of a bitter debate over whether it was safe to return to classroom instruction. He has largely kept his own counsel, even as parents and teachers exchanged harsh accusations.
But with a deal reached on Monday, he agreed to sit down with WW for a conversation.
We asked Guerrero to talk about what he's learned in the past year, and why it's critical to get kids back to class.
WW: In some ways, the biggest question in the state was whether Portland Public Schools would manage to reopen. That seems to be on track?
Guadalupe Guerrero: Yeah, well, we never doubted it.
We were the first to say, "Something's going on here," a year and three days ago. Sitting here in my office, several of us thinking, "This isn't looking good" and "Let's make sure we're not putting anybody in peril with their health."
Fast forward to this year. We've tried to act with safety and responsibility. We've listened to the health experts. Of course, we're not substituting for public health or the Oregon Health Authority. And we try to observe those guidelines that the Department of Education puts out.
Why bring kids back now?
One of the things that keeps me up at night is, we know that economic times have been difficult. Society has been under stress. We have students out there for whom there may be neglect. There may be abuse. There may be situations that normally we would be tracking, monitoring and working with families to support them.
It's probably no surprise that reporting [of abuse] is down in the state. It's likely not because there's less situations of that going on.
So that's one reason. The other is just good old instruction that can happen face to face and the benefits of a public schooling.
When you talk about older students, you go out to a field right now and you see them practicing athletics. How many emails I've gotten recently from parents, saying: "Oh my God, the change has happened almost overnight. My kid was depressed, was disengaged, wasn't into school. And they've started practice." And I think the words they used were that "happiness has returned to my child."
How confident are you that students aren't going to get their families sick when school buildings open up again?
What do I know? I'm a paraprofessional in a suit. So I have to rely on public health authorities, our health advisory team, the Department of Education. And call me conservative, but we've tried to be safe and prudent about the steps that we take. I hope that the community doesn't perceive that I'm gambling with our children's, families' or communities' health.
Suddenly, everybody's an epidemiologist, right? But I know that I have particular guidance that I have to observe. And so that's how we've had our conversations about when is the right time to proceed.
It shouldn't be a huge surprise to people that the largest school district in the densest county in the metro area might not be the first one to reopen. We weren't twiddling our thumbs. We were focused on still maintaining the continuity of learning and supporting our teachers.
So will you commit to releasing the remaining data on school building ventilation? I know that analysis is ongoing.
I don't think there's any state secrets here.
Now, of course, people gotta give us a little grace. We're not dealing with brand-new buildings, you know, across the city. We've changed filters, we've changed our routines and ventilation, and you've heard about the air purifiers. Everything we can possibly do.
If there was any sort of risk or danger, I would be the last person to knowingly put a student or an employee at risk in a facility that isn't safe for teaching and learning.
What worked during the pandemic?
So, a year ago, we were not a district that was maximizing the power of technology as a way to interact and connect. [In some cases,] this pandemic has strengthened teacher-student relationships. You would think that they would be farther apart, but there's countless anecdotes of how actually the opposite has happened, in that you're getting this window into the students' daily life and household.
And it isn't just teachers that are learning something from that process. Our parents are walking by the kitchen table and seeing what their kids are doing. They're seeing the activities that our educators are engaging them with. That's powerful.
What's one thing the district did that you would never want to do again?
I don't want to punish myself for making the best decisions I could make given the information and what we understood about all of this.
We've put in a solid 12 to 14 hours a day for the last year trying to be careful. Look, I'm not a perfect leader. We're not a perfect school district, but I think we've done our best to be responsible.