In the run-up to the first day of school on Wednesday, some Portland high school staff were getting increasingly concerned about welcoming students back into buildings with the delta variant driving up COVID-19 case numbers.
A number of PPS school staff met on Sunday, at a park in person, and then again on Tuesday virtually.
Roosevelt High School librarian Betsy Fogelman Tighe was at both meetings. She said there were concerns that safety measures wouldn’t be followed. Teachers were worried they were leading students and families that trusted them into an unsafe environment.
“Some of these teachers were saying — ‘how can we tell them, they trust us, we say it’s safe, and we don’t believe it’s safe?’,” Fogelman Tighe said.
Forty teachers posed for a photo in a basement classroom with no windows, to show what classrooms would look like. Fogelman Tighe said several classrooms don’t have windows, or don’t have windows that open. The district’s back-to-school guide does not mention windows, but all classrooms have HEPA filters, and schools have central air filters.
Fogelman Tighe said the group wanted to delay the school year until after Labor Day, to wait for a possible decline in Oregon’s surge of COVID-19 cases.
But the delay didn’t happen, and school started on Wednesday as planned.
Travis Flye works with Fogelman Tighe at Roosevelt, where he teaches career technical education courses on digital media. Flye said he felt anxious, nervous and unprepared for that first day.
“We’ve had a lot of growth and a lot of changes over these last 18 months, and so I found myself really feeling like it was the first year again,” he said.
But he was also excited to see students again and felt the same from them.
“A lot of kids were like saying, ‘I’m absolutely terrified to be here, but I’m also here and wanting to do this’, and I very much relate to that,” Flye said.
“...It’s not untrue when we talk about distance learning not being adequate. So to be back and to have this space and energy back feels good, even if it also is really precarious and maybe even a bad idea.”
The worry and fear about distancing goes beyond the crowded halls at Roosevelt. In responses from over 1000 parents, students, teachers and other school staff to an OPB survey, “distancing” or “distance” was mentioned nearly 300 times.
PPS teachers were among those who shared those concerns.
And in a brief shared with members earlier this week, the Portland Association of Teachers shared that it had come to a “tentative agreement on safety” with the district Tuesday night.
PAT wants “at least three feet per student,” while the district maintains three feet “to the extent possible.”
When that is not possible, PAT and PPS tentatively agreed on “clear mitigation measures and full transparency for educators, students, and parents in every classroom where it is not possible,” according to PAT.
“We believe that this agreement with PAT strongly affirms our layered health and safety measures, which will allow us to maximize a full in-person learning experience,” district Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia said in a Wednesday message to the district community.
In an interview with OPB, Dr. Malaika Little of Legacy Health said the infectiousness of the delta variant may make a difference in how important distancing is to curbing COVID-19, but that most data available is from before delta. She said things like staggering lunch or hallway time could be helpful.
“I think we all share concerns about school classrooms overcrowding and the ability of some ages to keep that distance,” Little said. “I’m actually a bit less worried about the classroom than I am just general social clustering.”
Roosevelt teacher Flye still has questions and concerns about the school year. But he’s still showing up for his students. He said he got through the first day with check-ins from colleagues, and by being honest with his students, and helping them feel as comfortable as they can in the classroom.
“I’m trying to do the right thing in a situation that feels wrong,” Flye said. “I can’t rewrite policy, I can’t delay the start of school. I can’t pause school, but I can make sure that my kids feel seen, and safe, and sane.”