Oregon Is Vaccinating Teachers. It Might Not Be Enough to Reopen Schools.

Shortly before Christmas, as Oregon schools faced their 10th month under some of the nation’s sternest coronavirus restrictions, Gov. Kate Brown began a major push to reopen classrooms.

She relaxed certain standards for restarting in-person teaching. She offered to help districts pay for masks, testing and tracing, and improved ventilation. Most important, she prioritized teachers and school staff members for vaccination — ahead of some older people.

Her goal: to resume in-person classes statewide by Feb. 15.

But today, roughly 80 percent of Oregon’s 560,000 public schoolchildren remain in fully remote instruction. And while some districts are slowly bringing children back, two of the largest, Portland and Beaverton, do not plan to reopen until at least April — and then only for younger students.

Oregon’s halting efforts to return children to classrooms are being repeated up and down the West Coast. The region’s largest city school districts — from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Los Angeles — have remained mostly closed, even as large districts elsewhere, including Boston, New York, Miami, Houston and Chicago, have been resuming in-person instruction.

And the release on Friday of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that urge school districts to reopen has not changed the minds of powerful teachers’ unions opposed to returning students to classrooms without more stringent precautions. If anything, union leaders say, the C.D.C. guidelines have bolstered their case.

“In many ways,” Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said on Saturday, “the new guidelines are in line with the things we’ve been asking for and continuing to ask for.” Teachers’ unions in Washington State and California echoed her assessment.

ImageDespite Ms. Brown’s efforts, Oregon was not close to her goal of resuming in-person classes statewide by Feb. 15.
Credit…Pool photo by Abigail Dollins

Many of the unions have called on districts not only to vaccinate teachers and school staff members, but also to improve ventilation and ensure six feet of distancing. They have insisted that schools not open until the infection rates in their communities are very low.

The C.D.C.’s new guidelines say that schools, particularly elementary schools, can reopen safely before all staff members are inoculated and even when the local infection rate is relatively high. But the guidelines make clear that an array of safety measures, like mask wearing, cleaning and social distancing, should also be enforced.

About half of the nation’s students are now attending school in person, and a majority of districts offer at least some live instruction. But in Washington, less than a quarter of the state’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren are receiving in-person instruction. A plan to reopen Seattle schools on March 1 for prekindergarten through second grade was scrapped this month as negotiations stalled.

And in California, where more than six million students are in public schools, only about a third of middle and high school districts are offering any live instruction. All of the state’s largest cities remain almost entirely remote.

There is no clear, single reason for the West Coast’s caution, experts say. California suffered a vicious holiday surge in Covid-19 infections that until recently kept rates too high for most schools to meet in person. Until Tuesday, Los Angeles County’s infection rates had ruled out the return of students for nearly a year. But some districts, such as San Francisco’s, resisted live instruction even when the state thresholds would have let them reopen.

Infection rates in Washington and Oregon have consistently been among the country’s lowest. Although they rose sharply along with the rest of the nation’s in December, they have more recently trended down.

Critics of a swift reopening of schools note that high percentages of Black and Latino parents do not want their children back in classrooms, citing the pandemic’s disproportionately deadly impact on their communities. But that has also been true in New York, Chicago and other cities that have managed to open at least partly.

Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University school finance expert based in Seattle, points out that Washington, Oregon and California “all have more left-leaning leadership that is cozier with the unions.” But Boston, Chicago and New York also have strong public employee unions.

Those Eastern cities also have mayoral control of the school systems. Elected school boards govern the districts on the West Coast, and in most, teachers’ unions are strong political players, particularly in major cities such as Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Also, Ms. Roza noted, anxiety can be habit-forming.

“Once you haven’t opened for this long, it gets harder and harder,” she said. “The surge may be over and the case counts may have dropped. But we’re not at a lower level of fear.”


Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

In Oregon, Ms. Brown, a Democrat, has worked aggressively to coax school districts and teachers’ unions to reopen.

Tough state health restrictions she had imposed helped protect the state from experiencing the high death tolls occurring elsewhere. But by December, she was growing alarmed at the toll social isolation was having on children.

“Eleven- and 12-year-olds were attempting suicide,” she said in a recent interview. “And these were kids who had resources. What about the kids who don’t?”

Worried that schools would not reopen until the 2021-22 school year if she waited to vaccinate teachers along with other essential workers, Ms. Brown rejected federal guidelines and bumped school employees up in priority, before people 65 and older, even though that constituency would — and did — protest.

Oregon was among a handful of states at the time, and the only one on the West Coast, to single out school employees for the vaccine. (About half of states now prioritize teachers.) Nationally, about 85 percent of teachers believe they should be prioritized for immunization but only 35 percent have been vaccinated, according to a recent National Education Association survey.

By late January, some Oregon teachers had received their first shots, and for some of the state’s school districts, the reopening process unfolded as Ms. Brown had hoped.

In Bend, Ore., a rural district with 18,000 students, the vaccine eased tensions around an already planned reopening of classrooms for younger students, said parents and teachers.

“Most teachers at my school are getting their second doses now, and it has given them some peace of mind,” said Christina Kennedy, a first-grade teacher whose students now attend school five full days a week.

Ms. Kennedy said she and her husband, who teaches eighth grade, had not yet gotten their shots because they had already contracted Covid-19 and recovered. But their classrooms are reassuringly cleaner and well ventilated.

“I’m zipping up coats and helping kids with snow boots and Band-Aids and helping them with their water bottles and food they can’t open — and I wash my hands a lot and don’t take off my face mask,” she said.

In the Salem-Keizer school district, where some 42,000 students are enrolled around Oregon’s capital, the school superintendent, Christy Perry, said the governor’s announcement streamlined planning for a March return of the youngest students. She and union officials both said the vaccinations contributed to a general sense of good will around the reopening negotiations.

But inoculations also left teachers with mixed emotions.

“When I got my vaccine, I felt so relieved,” said Mindy Merritt, a first-grade teacher and the president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association. “But then I felt kind of guilty because, at the same time, my mother, who is 74 and high-risk, was literally having anxiety attacks because she was unable to schedule hers.”

In districts with a history of more contentious labor relations, those mixed feelings included suspicion, which has helped stall reopening.

“It landed a bit as a trap,” said Ms. Thiel, the union president in Portland, the state’s largest school district. “It was, like, ‘We’re giving you the vaccine — now open schools for live instruction, no matter what.’ But these are life-and-death decisions that we need to get right.”

Ms. Thiel said that the city’s aging school buildings had profoundly inadequate ventilation and that the city’s rate of infection was high by the new C.D.C. guidelines.

Though air circulation is an important safeguard in preventing the spread of the virus, the C.D.C. guidelines did not offer detailed recommendations other than suggesting schools open doors and windows — an omission noted by a number of urban labor leaders.

“It just feels kind of icky,” agreed Angela Bonilla, who normally teaches fourth grade in a Spanish immersion class, and who this year is coaching other Portland teachers. Vaccines, she said, are just one of many concerns around bringing the district’s 50,000 or so students back in person, from antiquated ventilation to the fear that students will still carry the virus home and infect their unvaccinated families.


Credit…Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin, via Associated Press

In suburban Beaverton, the union has resisted returning, even with vaccines, unless new infection rates in the community average no higher than 50 per 100,000 people over two weeks — a far more restrictive threshold than the state’s advisory back-to-school cutoff of 350 per 100,000. The new C.D.C. guidelines designate 100 cases per 100,000 over one week as “high transmission” but say districts can provide some in-person instruction with appropriate safety measures even at that level.

(Beaverton’s two-week rate is currently about 166 cases per 100,000; the counties feeding into the Portland schools range from 122 to 128 cases per 100,000.)

Sara Schmitt, president of the Beaverton Education Association, said that in surveys, 65 percent of union members said inoculation would make them feel sufficiently safe to return in person. But about 40 percent also reported underlying health risks.

Such qualms, union leaders say, lead them to wonder whether a few weeks of in-person class, mostly in grade school, are worth the disruption at this point.

“We hear concerns about teenagers’ mental health,” said Ms. Thiel, the Portland labor leader. “We hear kids need live interaction, and I agree. But does opening school with students in masks six feet apart, and the teacher behind a screen, and no lunch or recess — does that improve anything?”

Yes, said Kim McGair, a lawyer with a freshman in the Portland school system. Her fellow parents confide constantly, she said, “about teenagers who don’t get out of bed and kids who have lost all motivation.”

If only the West Coast would try “a little of that East Coast toughness,” she said.

“Here in Portland, we’re all so very nice: ‘Portland Nice,’” she said. “No one can go back until everyone feels safe in the classroom. That’s not a way to make policy decisions that affect thousands of kids.”

“In many ways,” Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, said on Saturday, “the new guidelines are in line with the things we’ve been asking for and continuing to ask for.” Teachers’ unions in Washington State and California echoed her assessment.

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