BLP teachers eager for return to class, but need assurances COVID safety is top priority


Bend-La Pine teachers saw the rally demanding a return to the classroom.

They see social media comments, calling into question their commitment to kids and questioning their fears of COVID.

And they struggle with the required distance learning, just like thousands of parents and students across the district.

But the bottom line, said Bend Education Association President Sarah Barclay, is teachers want back in the classroom as quickly and as safely as possible.

“What you hear from teachers and what some parents are really holding on to is that teachers really do want to be back in the building with their kids. That’s how they learn best. Teachers can’t wait to do that,” she said. “But that’s the part where the listening ends.”

Teachers are having to defend their livelihood on social media, trying to explain a complicated situation to many parents who refuse to acknowledge both sides of the issue.

“I want my safety ensured as I move back into the classroom. As an association that’s what we’re working on,” Barclay said. “That’s the discussion we’re having with the district in terms of our contract.”

That contract, she said, is already signed. The two sides are currently working on changes to a memorandum of understanding necessary due to schedule changes, a move to distance learning and other deviations from the original agreement.

“Those are conversations that are happening, but they’re not preventing a return to the classroom,” she said, hoping to dispel rumors that contentious contract negotiations were keeping kids at home.

The continued spread of COVID in Deschutes County is the only thing keeping kids out of the classroom at the moment.

After weeks of declining cases – which prompted the district last month to announce an expedited reopening of schools – cases shot back up, surpassing the threshold for bringing back students in grades K-3.

COVID cases need to be below 30/100,000 people for three straight weeks. The earliest return to class now is November 2nd.

What’s more, the teachers union isn’t certain the district’s buildings are ready for a return to a hybrid model of instruction, with half the district’s 18,000 students attending one day, the other half attending the next.

“Although everyone would agree that being at school is ‘better,’ I do not feel safe enough to expose my family or my students’ families to this virus,” one middle school teacher tells us. “I do not believe the hybrid model will be any better either.”

Said another: “I wouldn’t feel safe returning to school right now, but I also don’t have a choice because my job and school are important to me and I can’t afford a leave of absence.”

Last month, the association surveyed its 975 members about their general level of concern on safety and instructional changes upon a return to the classroom.

More than 670 teachers responded and 88% said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about returning to a hybrid model so quickly.

That data has been shared with the district and “they understand our concern and are working with us,” Barclay said.

Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist said the district has had nothing but cordial conversations over the last few months.

“We’re working together to make sure our staff does feel safe,” she said. “They’re trying to represent the interest of 1,000 members and there are things some teachers have concerns about that we may or may not be able to address.”

Barclay said teachers and buildings had been planning for the initial October 26th reopening date, but “there was still a lot of work to be done.”

“I can’t speak to every building, but I still think there’s a lot of work to be done in a short period of time to ensure safety,” she said.

Nordquist said district safety officials are walking through buildings this week and next for final inspections to ensure signage is in place, PPE is ready and student flows are dialed in.

The Oregon Department of Education laid out hundreds of requirements for schools to meet before reopening and teachers want to make sure each one is met.

“I am comfortable with the safety measures in place, particularly in our elementary schools,” Nordquist said. “We’re essentially ready at the middle and high school but we are literally ready to go at elementary schools.”

Meanwhile, Barclay, Nordquist and teachers acknowledge morale is low.

“Morale is the lowest I’ve seen among my building staff,” one elementary teacher said. “We are exhausted. We are discouraged because of the lack of support from the community at large.”

On Monday, more than 100 parents and kids rallied outside the Bend-La Pine Schools administration building demanding a return to the classroom.

Many in the group hoped the message carried to Salem where Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials have said they’ll revisit the COVID metrics currently keeping kids at home.

And while some voiced their support for teachers, others there and online put some of the blame on them too.

“The opening rally made me feel like the safety of staff and students isn’t important to some or that there are huge variances in how individuals understand the risks COVID,” one middle school teacher told Central Oregon Daily News. “Sure, maybe most students will be okay, but there have been deaths reported among young people and school staff in locations where schools are open. How would the death of a student or staff member impact the community?”

Another elementary teacher called the rally a “hit below the belt” while another said, “the rally made me feel like the community is not backing teachers right now.”

“The more that battle continues, the less productive and community-oriented we’re going to be,” Barclay said. “We’re in this together. The more we can link arms, the stronger we will be  and the more we’ll be able to do what’s right for kids.”

But the current trend of COVID cases isn’t boding well for a quick return.

And the longer kids are forced to stay home, the louder the voices to return likely will be.

“I think our community and our teachers and schools are going to have to be very flexible this year – the virus sets the stage for everything,” Barclay said.

She says the situation right now is bigger than a Facebook thread and more complicated than “just open the schools.”

“We’re all on the same team and we all want the same things. We want students back in the classroom and parent wants their kids back in school,” she said. “We can all agree on that but we have to keep in mind what the science is saying around COVID.”


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