District letter to Portland teachers about misuse of sick days creates tension

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Teachers in Oregon are struggling as they try their best to meet students’ needs while juggling COVID-19 safety and crippling staffing shortages.

In the Portland Public School District (PPS), things appeared to come to a boiling point between the district and teachers union (Portland Association of Teachers) when the head of human resources at PPS wrote a letter to teachers last week.

It said, in part, that some last-minute teacher absences were “concerning” and that district officials had heard there were educators trying to get their colleagues to call in sick “with the intention of causing the district to close schools.”

The union fired back with its own letter saying the correspondence from the district was “off-base, demoralizing” and “an insult” to their profession.”

“As soon as that letter went out, I started hearing from dozens, maybe hundreds of members who just couldn’t believe that that was the note in their inbox,” said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.

Thiel said educators have had a difficult two years, reinventing what they do while trying to prioritize the health and needs of students, their families and themselves. On top of that, they’ve been trying to cover a shortage of staff since the start of the school year.

“So that email from PPS was incredibly demoralizing,” Thiel said. “Really felt like a kick in the teeth.”

She said there are teachers who are considering leaving the profession after they received the letter.

“I have personally heard from a handful of educators who have said it was their last straw,” said Thiel.

Before winter break, the district and union were negotiating to give teachers more time to address students’ social/emotional needs and more planning and prep time. Those negotiations fell through, which also appears to have made influenced the relationship between the two parties.

“At the last minute […] they [the district] suggested things like taking away a planning day from educators in June. And I think you know, as we sit at the table having these conversations, we weren’t there to make trade-offs. Educators were saying, ‘We’re drowning and we need support,” Thiel said.

KGW also asked on two occasions to speak with someone from the district about the state of the relationship between the district and union. The district sent a statement that said, “Our top priority at the moment is to work closely with our staff, partners, and labor partners to ensure our schools can remain open. Portland public schools is actively looking into the incidents referenced in the email to pat educators and cannot share more detailed information at this time. Generally speaking, it is unlawful for educators to participate in any sort of coordinated action to be absent for anything other than a legitimate reason under the negotiated collective bargaining agreement. In addition, while the District respects the right to support unions, union-supported activities should not occur during work time without prior approval.”

Thiel acknowledged the union’s relationship with the district feels strained. She said it may improve if educators felt that they were being heard in regard to their concerns and needs.

Teachers have consistently expressed a need for more time to address students’ needs. According to Thiel, other districts have given educators more planning days to address the needs of teachers. As for addressing the staffing shortage, Thiel said other districts are doing things like rolling school closures.

Educators acknowledge that it’s a tough time right now, especially with the surge of the omicron COVID variant. But Thiel said the level educators are working at currently is unsustainable, with hundreds of school staff out every day and hundreds of those positions going unfilled by substitutes.

Even after the omicron surge passes, Thiel said something has to change.

“Throughout the fall, we have been asking the district to look at the staffing shortage and make adjustments,” said Thiel. “Our students will absolutely not be served if we continue to lose educators and school staff because of impossible demands that are not being acknowledged or resourced.”

“I just want people to know how important it is to educators to make sure that students are getting everything that they need,” Thiel said.

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