The union representing Portland teachers agrees with administrators at Oregon’s largest school district on a couple of things. First, students are dealing with a lot right now socially, emotionally and academically. They’re back in school full-time and almost two years into a global pandemic. The two parties also agree that teachers need time to plan, prepare, and serve those struggling students while suffering through staff shortages at nearly every level.
The union and the district are bargaining this week to try to come up with solutions to this problem for the rest of the school year. The union’s proposal includes additional planning days districtwide.
At the high school level, the union proposed one “asynchronous instruction day” per week, with what it’s calling “FLEX time” for students and teachers. Teachers would have three hours of “FLEX time” with the rest of the day to plan. Half of high school teachers would be available online in the morning and half would be available in the afternoon, so that students could have teachers available for the entire six-hour school day.
At the elementary and middle school level, the Portland Association of Teachers proposed one 2-hour early release or late arrival day each week.
“By making these adjustments, we believe we can provide our students with a better experience, create real relief for educators so the staffing crisis stops getting worse, and provide a stable and sustainable plan for the rest of the school year,” said PAT’s bargaining team in a statement on Tuesday.
The district responded with its own statement on Tuesday.
“While we share the urgency to address issues impacting our educator’s experience this school year, we do not believe that dramatically reducing in-person learning for students is in the best interest of our students, their families and our community,” said PPS Deputy Superintendent Shawn Bird in a statement shared on Tuesday.
The district said the union’s plan would reduce in-person school by about 20 days for high school students “in aggregate.”
Members of the union bargaining team disagreed with that, saying the district was mischaracterizing asynchronous days as a “loss” of instructional time. They said the proposal offers opportunities for small group instruction, or targeted instruction.
“Students have, throughout the entire day, access to their educator… there are multiple ways through which we can engage with students,” said bargaining team member and Lincoln High School teacher Steve Lancaster.
“We are 100% confident that that day meets the legal standard to be instructional hours.”
Since Monday, the union’s first bargaining session, when the district first saw the proposal, the response from parents on social media has been swiftly against the union’s idea. PPS Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia said his inbox has never been so full.
“Getting hundreds and hundreds of emails and communications from parents and students asking for us not to move forward with this,” Garcia said.
One PAT bargaining team member asked Garcia who those emails represent, and he agreed that there should be more engagement from families before making what he called a “dramatic” proposal.
Under PAT’s proposal, the changes would happen after winter break and continue to the end of the school year.
“We need to do our due diligence in really understanding what it is that our families, especially our families of color, are saying about this,” Garcia said.
During bargaining on Tuesday, the district offered its own proposal for grades 6-12: three days with modified schedules in January, February, and March. The proposed modified days would allow time in the morning for students to focus on social-emotional learning, and professional development for staff in the afternoon.
Later in the session, the district expanded on its counterproposal to PAT, by offering three 2-hour early dismissal days on January 5, February 2, and March 2 for educators to “plan and address school climate needs.”
They also added two and a half hours of “release time” for elementary level educators per month to better address the social-emotional needs of students. During that time, the district proposed that teachers on special assignments, or TOSAs, support students in their classes.
The two parties did agree on fewer monthly staff meetings, though the union wants two per month and the district has proposed three.
Bird spent time at the beginning of Tuesday’s session sharing attendance and grade data from the first quarter of the school year. Broken down by race, student attendance rates range from 88% attendance for Native American students and 91% for Black students to 96% for white students and 97% for Asian students. Grade data showed 18.6% of students at all high schools receiving D’s and F’s in math, with 14.7% D’s and F’s in high socioeconomic status schools compared to 25% D’s and F’s in low socioeconomic status schools.
“What I know from data we’ve collected from the first quarter, is that we have students with higher failure rates in our high schools,” Bird said. “We have, particularly students of color, are failing at much higher rates than their white counterparts.”
He also shared general information about what school staff is seeing in schools, from increased fights, an increase in weapons on schools grounds and Title IX reports, as well as an increase in suicide screenings, from 225 in the first quarter of this school year compared to 91 in the first quarter of the 2019-2020 school year.
PAT’s bargaining team argued that without time for teachers to plan, students already struggling will be worse off.
“In being cautious to not cause harm to populations we’re already causing harm to, we’re not using our imaginations to find other possible solutions,” said Angela Bonilla, Scott elementary teacher and PAT bargaining team member.
She described bus shortages that have kept students of color at Scott from accessing their education.
“There are things that are already showing us that our system isn’t serving every kid, and to just keep pushing through is not going to fix that - it’s going to make it worse.”
Nothing has been agreed on, and bargaining will continue in December.
Changes to the PPS calendar would likely have to be approved by the school board.
On OPB’s Think Out Loud on Tuesday, Multnomah Education Service District’s senior programs administrator for student services Joni Tolon said schools are going to have to use creative solutions to support both students and staff.
”It’s absolutely going to have to look a little different for us to keep our teaching staff,” Tolon said. ”I actually have had that conversation with our administrators within Multnomah ESD regarding, how do we continue keeping our staff motivated, and rested, and having that work-life balance, at the same time that we’re teaching children?”
In a recent survey of its members, the Portland Association of Teachers found more than 70% of educators said stress levels are high or severe, with more than 1,000 teachers saying they are considering “taking a leave or resigning.”
Tolon said possible solutions include hiring additional teachers or moving to a 4-day school calendar, or year-round school, “Where there are more breaks in-between times of learning. There may be some ways that we need to think differently about education,” Tolon said.
Last week, in the Eugene 4J school district, the school board approved changes to the calendar that have added three no-school days for students in December, January, and April, while also providing “workload relief” days for staff.
“4J prioritizes student learning time, but also must prioritize staff being prepared to support student learning time,” the district said in a statement.
“The days will provide critically needed work time for staff addressing COVID-related needs and ongoing staffing shortages as well as their regular workload, so they can continue to make our schools safe and stable and serve students as well as possible.”