School district, teachers’ union differences delay return to in-classroom learning

The Philomath School District felt confident about its plans to launch hybrid learning for K-3 students on Tuesday morning while the local teachers’ union expressed fears that the process had been rushed to a degree that could jeopardize workplace safety.

The situation led to the Philomath Education Association threatening to take the matter to the state’s Employment Relations Board. As a result, less than 24 hours before a form of regular in-classroom learning was to resume for the first time since March 13, the district changed course and decided to remain only in distance learning until Feb. 9.

“Early this afternoon, the district received information referencing the intent of PEA to file an unfair labor practices claim,” Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday reported to the School Board on Monday night. “Such a suit against the district threatens the planned opening of our classrooms. Rather than have a third-party agency determine our opening status, I would prefer to collaboratively control these plans in Philomath.”

School Board members and the district’s administrative team reacted in general with disappointment that the doors would not be opening as planned. But there were also expressions of concern that the emotionally-charged situation could spiral out of control and that not all blame should be placed on the teachers.

“Everyone has decisions that have to be made and emotions are running very high, but I’m hopeful we can get to an understanding on this quickly and get our students back in class,” School Board member Karen Skinkis said. “But it’s not going to do any good to tear our community apart either.”

Board member Greg Gerding did not mince words about his feelings on the matter.

“I find it deeply disturbing that the teachers’ union simply does not want to teach in our schools and are threatening a lawsuit to stop the district from holding in-class teaching; it’s extremely sad,” Gerding said. “Our district leadership has laid out a safe path to get our students, teachers and staff back into the classroom via the hybrid model.”

The PEA’s Jennifer Buchanan pointed out that the association and its members have been committed and eager to return students to the classroom.

“We take seriously our responsibility to provide students a school environment that is safe and well-regulated,” Buchanan told the board. “This can only happen when we have a district staff who are fully trained and supported in following procedures that are clearly developed and communicated with all stakeholders.”

Board Chair Shelley Niemann said that the district felt it was prepared to open to hybrid learning with all of the hard work that had occurred since the beginning of the school year. Once the metrics allowed, Philomath wanted to reopen and last week, those numbers allowed for the move forward.

“This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone like we’re rushing into things; we have been preparing for this for a very long time,” Niemann said. “We worked very hard and thoughtfully to follow the guidelines set before us by the state and county and we feel that we’re there.

“I just think it’s critically important that we all work together to get our students back in the classroom as soon as possible,” she added.

The PEA referred to a statement delivered to the district in early October that referred to concerns about completing necessary planning and an agreed-upon memorandum of understanding prior to returning to in-person instruction.

“Attempting to initiate an instructional model change in anything less than 14 days is asking for trouble and issues for the Philomath School District are apparent,” Oregon Education Association consultant Jason Foltz wrote in a Jan. 22 letter to the PEA’s executive board. “The district is not prepared to open for in-person instruction and its decisions are placing the health and safety of students and staff at risk.”

Foltz wrote that by waiting just a few more weeks, the district could tackle various issues, including finalizing negotiations with the PEA “over schedules, workload and other items that have been proposed by the parties and avoid an unfair labor practice charge.”

Vaccinations were another issue with the possibility that teachers could get their first round of COVID shots beginning this week.

Buchanan provided an overview of the OEA consultant’s conclusions and encouraged board members to “carefully consider the contents of this document, as it represents an informed point of view regarding the safe return to in-person learning plans.”

Said Buchanan, “We are disappointed with the district’s decision that they had to delay a return to in-person instruction due to an inability to complete planning and training. We are committed to and optimistic about working with the district to use this time to complete this important work.”

Gerding said MOU discussions between the district and union have been an ongoing process for months.

“Let us stop all of the foot-dragging and road-blocking and put our students first,” Gerding said.

“We’ve got a plan that we’ve been working on for months and months and months that’s been approved and supported,” board member Jim Kildea said. “It’s supported by the superintendent, by the district leadership, by the board, by the county, by the state. We’ve addressed every single roadblock.”

Kildea said the decision to delay the opening became necessary to avoid tying up “valuable resources to work our way through a legal issue” that could become a financial burden to the district.

Said Kildea, “We would rather push off the start of school to prevent that so we can focus on the kids instead of focusing on a lawsuit, which I think is the right thing to do, sad as it is.”

Halliday said she was ready to see students on Tuesday.

“The thing that disappoints me the most about this and having to make this announcement at the 11th hour today is that we have kids with brand new backpacks and new clothes that are ready to come to school tomorrow,” she said. “And they won’t be able to come to school tomorrow because we’ve had to slow things down.”

Principal Abby Couture said Clemens Primary School was ready to open its doors.

“We have gone through the trainings, we have worked together to create the best system … and I can guarantee that there isn’t one person that is not nervous; it’s a new step for all of us. But I know we are ready.”

Bryan Traylor, interim principal for Philomath Elementary and Blodgett School, said his campuses were also ready and lauded the efforts of Halliday and the administrative team. But he also added that all parties need to work together.

“I really want this board, the administrative team and the community to not demonize the teachers or any staff in this situation,” Traylor said. “It is difficult, it is a health risk. … We’re going to work with the staff to get this right. We cannot give another day (to reopen) to this community and not be ready — we have to get this right.”

Along that vein, Halliday said she understands teachers and staff that need to make decisions about personal well-being but added that she also knows kids are suffering.

“I love our staff and want them to be there and I am committed to working with our union to be able to make sure that we come to agreement on whatever outstanding issues there continue to be,” she said.

Skinkis voiced support for the efforts of the administrative team but as Traylor had mentioned, spoke against anyone vilifying teachers.

“I have to believe it’s in our teachers’ heart to teach our students and they want to be in the buildings,” Skinkis said. “I can see this has the potential to really divide our community and I encourage everyone to give some grace and patience and not feed into the anger.”

Niemann said she wanted to make it clear “that the board’s goal since we have been put in this situation has been to return our students to in-person learning as soon as possible. We have directed Susan to make this happen as soon as we are able and as safely as possible.”

Niemann asked the PEA to join Halliday’s commitment to working out an agreement “in the near future and get our schools open.”

Said Halliday, “I’m disappointed — there’s no secret about that. I want us to unify rather than separate as we keep moving.”

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