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Unions, districts talk school reopening

Most educators are willing to return to classrooms for in-person instruction, but that decision would be much easier to make if most of them were vaccinated against COVID-19, say local teacher union representatives.

In the wake of the Oregon Department of Education’s latest update to its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance released Tuesday, the Medford Education Association and Central Point Education Association have been busy determining the conditions under which its members would be willing to work.

The ODE guidance relaxed case-count and test positivity guidelines but included a long list of safety protocols districts are required to implement, including strict rules for physical distancing, face coverings and on-site testing.

Troy Pomeroy, president of the Medford Education Association, said union surveys have revealed that MSD staffers want to return but stressed there is still much to hash out at the bargaining table before the district’s targeted Feb. 22 reopening for kindergartners and first-graders. The MEA represents district teachers, specialists, psychologists and nurses.

“I won’t share specific numbers, but I can tell you that there’s a varied opinion on in-person (instruction),” Pomeroy said. “Everybody’s excited to have the kids back and waiting for that day to happen, but how we do that and when we do that is the thing that we’re not in agreement on, just like if you ask any 10 people out in society about COVID and what we should do, you’re going to get back 10 different responses.”

Pomeroy, who’s a math teacher at Hedrick Middle School, said there are different levels of comfort when it comes to returning to classrooms. Some educators have said they are comfortable returning full-time, while others have said they won’t be comfortable in a school building until “after there is no such thing as COVID any longer.”

At least some of that apprehension will likely be assuaged, he added, for those educators who are able to get vaccinated. To that end, the announcement Wednesday by Jackson County Health & Human Services that kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and district staff are eligible for this week’s vaccination event at The Expo counts as a major development.

More good news arrived Thursday, when organizers estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 health care workers and educators received COVID-19 shots on the first day of the three-day event. Organizers have said the goal is to provide 6,000 shots.

“Having a vaccine available made a big difference in comfort levels, it seems like from the polling,” Pomeroy said. “That would not make everybody comfortable but it made a lot of people comfortable. That’s going to be a big relief for a lot of people. To me it’s really exciting to see the community working together so that we can bring kids back and do it in a safe manner for the staff that works with them. It’s a good day.”

A few miles to the north, Central Point Education Association President Chris Alden said polling indicated that 80% of that district’s educators are willing to return to full-time in-person instruction with or without the vaccine. At least a little apprehension is buried within those numbers, however. About 32% are excited to enter school buildings again whether they get the vaccine, but another 30% “would really, really prefer to wait” until they’re vaccinated, Alden said.

“But for 80%,” he said, “regardless of the vaccine, if we’re told to come back, we’re coming back.”

For some teacher unions and districts, writing up an agreement that addresses pandemic working conditions stands as a crucial hurdle that must be cleared before schools reopen fully. Central Point is eying a Feb. 2 reopening, and Medford released the blueprint for its reopening Thursday that promises full in-person instruction four days a week for students in kindergarten through third grade and a hybrid format for everybody else.

Though MSD Superintendent Bret Champion has stressed that the district will rigorously follow the Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, which includes a laundry list of safety measures and mandatory on-site testing starting March 1, Pomeroy said reaching an agreement that will add another layer of protections for educators soon is a priority.

“Talks are going well,” he said. “We started that (last) summer and because teachers were off for the summer and everybody was trying to figure out how to bring kids back in August, and it changed so much we never got to finalize the agreement. Things change regularly, and so we figured before we actually brought kids back we need to get that done, so we’re doing that, we’re having meetings, it’s going well.

“The goal is to make the working conditions doable for teachers so we can do a good job — their heart is to do a good job for kids. And while these are unusual circumstances, we want to be able to set them up in a way so they can do a good job for kids.”

When asked whether an agreement would be finalized before that Feb. 22 restart date, Pomeroy said, “Oh, we need to have it in place before we move forward with kids back, and we will.”

Such an agreement is also a work in progress in Central Point, but Alden didn’t seem too worried when asked about it Wednesday. Though details of the district’s in-person rollout are still being worked out, the union and district have an open line of communication and a good relationship.

“We had a meeting (Tuesday) and we talked about that,” he said. “That’s still an option that’s on the table for us. But again, our district has a long history of going to teachers and making their plans and their intentions very clear. We’re still trying to work through that because there is a lot of confusion, a lot of misunderstanding out there in every district about what’s going to happen during a potential hybrid. That’s still something we’re working on.”

Mail Tribune reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.