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Portland Schools Considering Going Remote-Only Fridays

The Portland Association of Teachers has proposed giving teachers one day a week for planning and virtual office hours during which students would learn remotely, though some are concerned about potential learning loss.

Portland Teachers Union.jpg
The union representing Portland Public Schools' teachers is proposing students spend Fridays learning remotely while educators host virtual office hours and plan for the coming week in order to address the high degree of variation in pupils' needs after more than a year of interrupted learning.
Eder Campuzano | The Oregonian/O/Photo by Eder Campuzano/Staff
(TNS) — To help Portland Public Schools’ educators and students adjust to the stresses of resuming full-time in-person classes, the union representing the district’s teachers proposes cancelling in-person instruction for high schoolers one day every week after winter break.

Under a bargaining agreement proposed by the Portland Association of Teachers Monday afternoon, teachers would spend half of that day offering some students individual or small group help online and a half-day planning future instruction.

In elementary, K-8 and middle schools, students would arrive two hours late or be sent home two hours early one day a week to give their teachers more time to plan instruction designed to make up for lost learning.

Union negotiators say district officials and principals could choose when those weekly virtual days, late starts and early releases take place. But they said would make the most sense for them to happen on days when high schoolers take all eight of their classes for short, 44-minute periods, rather than the four other weekdays when they take part in just half of their courses for about 90 minutes each.

For most high schools, that’s Friday.

And on weeks when students are only in class for four days due to a holiday or inservice, union negotiators say nothing would change.

District officials expressed skepticism about the wisdom of cutting back on significant amounts of in-person instruction. They indicated they are particularly concerned about students of color, navigating poverty or learning English as a second language, given that their learning needs were poorly met during more than a year in which they received exclusively or largely distance learning.

“Converting in-person instruction to asynchronous time may create inequities as we believe direct contact with teachers is the most beneficial for our students, particularly since they were in comprehensive distance learning for an extended period of time,” Shawn Bird, the district’s deputy superintendent for instruction, told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email.

Steve Lancaster, a social sciences teacher at Lincoln High and chair of the union’s bargaining unit, told district negotiators that educators in Oregon’s largest school district are at a breaking point.

He said students and educators alike are overwhelmed by their workloads. Lancaster told district officials that 25 percent of educators who responded to a union survey said they’ve averaged 60-hour work weeks or more since classes started. Half said they were considering leaving the profession.

“That is not sustainable. There needs to be some kind of relief valve somewhere and this provides some of that for educators,” he said.

That release, union negotiators say, is for high school students work from home on days they have eight periods and for teachers to hold virtual office hours for three hours on those days. Educators would use the rest of the day to plan for the coming week. During weeks that currently have fewer than five days scheduled for instruction, the union does not propose to cut back any of that in-person time.

Bird told Lancaster that shortening the number of hours that students are taught per week would require Portland Public Schools to tack more days on to the end of the school year in order to meet the state’s instructional hour requirements for high schoolers.

Lancaster disputed that, saying the state’s response to districts that don’t offer students enough teaching time in one school year is to require them to do so the next school year, which he said Portland could do.

“We can have some conversations about what the impact on the instructional hours would be. We can get the calculator out and figure that out,” Lancaster said. “It’s our belief that the number of instructional hours that would fall below the 990 hours of requirement may be close.”

If Friday instruction were to be cancelled starting in January, the math would work out to nearly 93 hours of class time cancelled for high schoolers. That’s 9 percent of the 990 instructional hours required by Oregon state law.

Bird told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email it’s his understanding the so-called “asynchronous” hours during which students teach themselves using reading material, instructions or other directions their teachers post online would not count toward instruction time.

“We have said since last March, it is important students have the opportunity for as much in-person instruction as possible,” he said.

Portland Public Schools was among the last districts in Oregon to offer a part-time return to classrooms when Gov. Kate Brown relaxed rules on school reopenings earlier this year. High schoolers who opted into hybrid learning got about 35 hours of in-person instruction from late April through mid-June compared to students in Lake Oswego who got about 108 and pupils in Estacada who got more than 300.

Elementary students, meanwhile, had about eight hours per week of in-person instruction starting in April. That compared to pupils in the Lake Oswego district who got 11 and Estacada students who got 14.

Union negotiators are also asking Portland Public Schools to slice two hours off one school day per week for students in elementary and middle school to allow those educators to have a spare bit of planning time. Teachers are facing huge variations in their students’ knowledge and skills, with some on track for grade-level lessons and some having learned almost nothing since instruction went virtual, and need time to plan how to best address that wide range of need, teachers on the bargaining team told district leaders Monday.

John Berkey, a union labor consultant, told Bird the district should consider scheduling the younger students’ late start or early release days with high schoolers’ virtual days. That way, he suggested, teens can babysit those younger siblings.

“It would mean that families who have students in multiple grade levels would have support at home,” Berkey said.

Although central office administrators have been supervising students during lunch and recess when schools are short staffed for monitors, union negotiators say those employees should instead volunteer in classrooms to serve as teacher aides to help instruct students with individualized learning plans.

That, Bird said, is a request the district may be able to partially accommodate.

“Administrators or other employees who volunteer would not be able to perform certain functions in a special education classroom for which they have not been trained, but they would be able to provide general assistance to the teacher,” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Throughout the bargaining session and in emails, Bird acknowledged that it’s been a rough year for teachers and students. Educators and parents in Portland Public Schools and other metro-area districts have reported intense behavioral issues among pupils across the district, particularly in middle and high schools.

Students at Roseway Heights Middle School earlier this month staged a walkout to protest what they described as rampant sexual harassment. In the neighboring Reynolds district, officials shuttered one middle school for two weeks to address an outbreak of fistfights.

Thiel said the virtual days would help ease the pressure on students and educators alike to avoid such closures.

“We’re trying to find solutions to make this year sustainable for our educators and our students,” she told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “We don’t want to have emergency closures due to staffing shortages.”

Still, district officials say they’re focused on maintaining classroom time for students.

“We look forward to continuing to work with (the teachers union) to address school climate and culture issues, but we don’t believe that having children working without direct access to a teacher is the most viable option to addressing these concerns,” Bird said.

District and union negotiators will return to the bargaining table Tuesday.

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