‘Risky situation’: BLP teachers’ union wary of return before access to vaccine

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By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Bend-La Pine is finalizing plans for a return to in-person instruction next month, but the teachers union says coming back before late March or early April “may be asking educators to return in a very risky situation.”

Bend Education Association President Sarah Barclay said she worries about the safety of the district’s teachers who won’t have access to the COVID vaccine until early spring.

“We are thankful that local communities now have the ability to create reopening plans that meet the unique needs for their students and their educators, but those plans should not be made abruptly and must include safeguards for the health and safety of both students and educators,” Barclay told Central Oregon Daily News Tuesday.

“Additionally, it is vital that educators have access to the vaccine in a timely manner,” she said. “Based on the Governor’s current timeline of a return to in-person instruction by February 15th and access to the vaccine appearing to be late March or Early April for group 1b, Districts may be asking educators to return in a very risky situation.”

Just before Christmas, Brown announced previously mandatory school health metrics would become “advisory” on January 1st and gave school districts the final say on returning to in-person instruction.

Brown targets Feb. 15th return to class; districts to make final decision

Barclay said Brown’s holiday break announcement came as a surprise to educators across the state.

“Nobody wants to get students safely back into classrooms more than Oregon’s educators, but the process to do so must be thoughtful and deliberative,” Barclay said. “Any changes to public health metrics dictating how we resume in-person instruction should be created with input from education stakeholders and rolled out in a clear and thoughtful manner, which did not happen before the most recent announcement by Governor Brown on Dec. 23rd.”

Healthcare workers in Oregon and residents in senior living facilities are currently being vaccinated as part of the first wave; so far more than 51,000 vaccinations have been administered.

Just one day before Brown made her announcement about school health metrics, she said teachers and child care providers would be prioritized in the second wave of the vaccine.

“Our kids need to know they are number one, and that we’re doing everything we can to get them back in the classrooms,” Brown said in a virtual news conference on December 22nd. “Educators and school staff are without a doubt essential to Oregon, and getting our kids back into the classroom is crucial to all of our success.”

But that second wave of vaccines is still months away.

Meanwhile, the Bend-La Pine school board has said it will release details this week on its “phased approach to returning students back to in-person classes, at least two days a week by February 15th.”

“For months, our district has been planning for the phased-in return of students to in-person learning when possible to do so safely,” the BLP board said in a statement. “Despite the timing of this announcement, leadership immediately began working with stakeholders to operationalize plans into action under the new guidance.

“This collaborative work will continue when schools resume, as required under the new guidance, including meeting with local health authorities, employee associations, and other stakeholders.”

Barclay said she met with BLP Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist and School Board Chairwoman Carrie Douglass after the governor’s announcement before Christmas.

“BLP and BEA met separately over the break and then joined together (Monday,)” Barclay said. “BEA was able to provide the district feedback on their plan which will be announced later this week.”

We’ve reached out to Nordquist, but have not yet heard back. Douglass said the board will discuss the BEA’s concerns and plans for return at its next meeting on January 12th.

“Bend Education Association will continue to work closely with Bend-La Pine Schools administration team to build a return to in-person instruction plan that allows for options, vaccine access, and safety for students and staff,” Barclay said.

The teachers’ concerns aren’t new.

In August, the BEA surveyed its nearly 1,000 members about their general level of concerns on safety and in-person instructional changes.

More than 670 responded and 88% said they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about returning to class last fall – and that’s when local COVID case counts were a fraction of what they are now.

Deschutes County reported 70 COVID cases the last full week of September; 345 cases were reported here last week.

And while the union represents a large chunk of the teachers, there are varying opinions among the group.

Lindsay Lyon, a long-time high school teacher in her first year in Bend-La Pine, said she wanted parents to know that many teachers are eager to get back to the classroom as quickly as possible.

“There are precautions, of course, that everyone is going to take. Everyone wants to stay safe, that’s a given,” she said. “But at this point, we have to look at the needs of the students.”

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