Brent Glidden, an eighth-grade English teacher in the Klamath Falls City School District, loves his job. And in a normal year, he couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere other than Ponderosa Middle School.
But, in a nation and county still hampered by COVID-19, Glidden is among numerous employees who believe city and county school districts should have waited until vaccines were available, or at least until the start of the next semester, before returning to in-person classes.
Klamath Falls City and Klamath County School district boards voted unanimously in a joint, virtual session on Jan. 7 to reopen their schools to hybrid learning, at the recommendation of Klamath County Public Health. The meeting drew more than 500 people, with the majority of comments in favor of a return to campuses.
But many teachers were troubled by the speed of the return and the fact that COVID cases were still growing in the area.
“The decision to return to school at this time shocked me,” Glidden said last week. “It seemed very rushed and rash.”
Glidden isn’t the only teacher concerned about the early return to hybrid learning.
As the union representative at Ponderosa, Glidden is in regular communication with his colleagues, who bring their concerns to him.
“I think more of our building is concerned than unconcerned,” he said.
In speaking with his colleagues, Glidden said he knows of two individuals who spent winter break battling COVID-19 and they believe their exposure was at school, when most students had not yet returned to the building. Over a matter of 12 school days from late November through mid-December, Glidden received letters notifying him of four cases of COVID-19 among Ponderosa staff, again before students had even arrived.
“That kind of transmission makes me very nervous to have students back at this time, and before we have a vaccine,” he said.
Glidden and other teachers are in favor of returning to in-person instruction, but wanted to wait a few weeks, at least. That would have coincided with a start of new semester, would have given the district more time to resolve liability issues, and perhaps teachers would be able to be vaccinated.
“I’ve absolutely loved seeing students this week,” Glidden said, but said he's "concerned that we’re going to have an unavoidable bad outcome … all it’s going to take is one hospitalization and this was a bad gamble financially.”
Kathryn Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Shasta Elementary in Klamath County School District, started teaching in-person classes Jan. 11, but said it wouldn’t have been her first choice.
She was reassigned to teach in-person at Shasta Elementary in November after teaching via Pearson Connexus in the fall.
“I was concerned about the (rise) of numbers of (COVID-19) cases in town,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she believes Shasta Elementary has protocols in place to promote safety, such as social distancing, masks and extra cleaning. She is also able to work in a modular classroom away from the main part of the school.
“I can control who comes in my house and I can pretty much control who comes in my classroom, and right now that’s nine students on Monday and Tuesday and nine students on Wednesday and Thursday, and I share a building with one other teacher,” Johnson said. “I feel personally, I’m lucky. But I worry about the safety of older teachers and teachers with pre-existing health conditions, that everybody’s going to stay as diligent as they have been.”
Johnson hoped to have the most vulnerable teachers covered by a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to classrooms.
“I worry that a teacher is going to get very, very sick,” she said.
Johnson is frustrated, too, by what she sees from community members who choose not to wear a mask.
“In my classroom, the kids have on their masks, they’re six feet apart," Johnson said. "I’m wearing my mask. I can talk through it, I have a teacher voice."
Johnson believes teachers and students are doing their part to mitigate virus spread. She encouraged the community at-large to do the same.
“I know of good family friends who have died from COVID and I just don’t want to see that in our schools,” she said.
Lainee Meis, 65, is an art teacher at Ponderosa Middle School who also feels that schools returned to in-person classes too soon. Meis is worried about contracting COVID-19, since she is older than the average teacher and considers herself at risk.
Meis asked for and was granted the ability to teach students virtually from her classroom. As students return to in-person learning, they will continue to take electives such as art and music from home. Meis said there are other teachers who feel similarly, but they do not have the ability to take leave or teach virtually.
“It’s been good for me, not so much for the other teachers,” she said. “They’ve allowed me not to get near the students until I get vaccinated. I still feel passionate that we’ve brought them in too soon.”
Meis said she’s happy that air purifying systems are being installed at Ponderosa Middle School to improve air flow in the building. And she's also looking forward to the possibility of getting a vaccine in the coming weeks. But she thinks both of those should have been completed before students returned.
“It’s a day late and a dollar short,” Meis said. “We’re already in the classrooms … If they would’ve just waited a week or two until we had this equipment, and until we were vaccinated, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with returning to school.”
'Roll of the dice'
Sean Wilcox teaches English-language learners and travels between Henley High School, Mazama High School and Henley Middle School during the week. He said he feels “troubled” by the joint school board decision to reopen schools so soon.
"I would have preferred to wait until a more concrete plan for vaccinations was created and our COVID numbers were lower,” Wilcox said in an email. “I have a chronic health condition (asthma) that has hospitalized me in the past. I worry that if I were to contract COVID-19, I would not fare well.”
City and county union presidents called on administrators and school boards to wait until Jan. 25 to restart hybrid learning.
Klamath Falls Education Association President Maureen Lundy, spokesperson for the city schools’ union, also said the return to school was premature. Lundy shared concerns held by city school teachers during the Jan. 7 joint school board meeting, prior to the joint vote of support for reopening the schools four days later.
“I think they just rolled the dice,” Lundy said. “But our health shouldn’t be a gamble.”
A Klamath Falls Education Association survey shows 17% of teachers in the city school district had no concerns with returning to hybrid learning on Jan. 11, while 83% had some kind of concern about coming back so quickly. The percentage breakdown included 55% of individuals who didn’t want to return to hybrid learning until it was safer to do so, and 45% of individuals who had some kind of concern but wanted to return to hybrid learning.
Lundy said she believes there are more staff members who are high-risk for COVID-19 or who are caring for others who are high risk, who may not be disclosing their situation due to fears of how they would be perceived.
“All of our teachers really want kids back,” she added “It’s so much better to teach a person, and we really do worry about our kids’ mental health.”
Still, she said it had to be done safely, and she wasn't sure it was safe yet.
“We are in (category) red,” Lundy said. “We have some of the highest caseloads in the state. We have a very high positivity rate and we don’t have any vaccinations yet. My suggestion was to wait a couple weeks, maybe till the semester change.”
Administration stands by reopening
Superintendents Glen Szymoniak and Paul Hillyer stand by the joint-school board decision to reopen, which was advised by the county public health department. Hillyer said the board was aware that the majority of city school teachers polled had concerns with opening up on Jan. 11, but he felt getting children into classrooms as soon as possible should take priority.
“The board just chose, because of the benefits to the students, that it was wise to move forward anyway, even though there wasn’t 100% agreement that that was the right thing to do as far as the staff goes,” Hillyer said.
Hillyer said the districts had to weigh the potential financial and safety risks with the social and emotional risks that students faced under distance learning. He said both boards leaned on the fact that Klamath County Public Health recommended students return to hybrid learning.
Public health looked at multiple factors of in-person education, including its stable environment, access to food and physical education, as well as its promotion of social skills and healthy habits.
“Because of all of those factors, we did make the recommendation to return to in-person learning,” said Jessica Dale, assistant director of Klamath County Public Health, during the joint school board meeting. “We feel that we are a group that needs to advocate for our vulnerable population so that they have the most stable and secure environments to be able to build lifelong skills.”
In addition to COVID-19 risks, school districts face financial risks as well. Legislation passed Dec. 28 — House Bill 4402 — appeared to provide legal protections in the event of returning to classrooms. But after studying the bill closely, those protections were more limited than they originally appeared.
Hillyer admitted those risks are real, and it's easy to feel vulnerable to legal action in today’s “litigious” society.
“A lot of time people look for those opportunities to sue school districts or any large entities," Hillyer said. "We have concerns about liability until we’re given that protection our concerns have not diminished.”
New guidance is set to be released from Oregon Department of Education Tuesday and Hillyer said he and the city schools district feel confident that outstanding liability issues will be resolved. Even if they are not, he stands by the districts’ decision to reopen.
County schools have different dynamics
Mark Nevala, president of the Klamath County Education Association, has been a teacher for county schools for more than 20 years, and serves as a spokesperson for the union.
He emphasized the union wasn’t against returning to hybrid learning, but that many teachers would’ve liked to wait until the start of the second semester on Jan. 25. He also expressed concerns that it is a bargaining year for county teachers, which will likely begin in early spring.
“We’re worried about the school finances if something bad should happen,” Nevala said.
Nevala said he surveyed teachers more than two weeks ago to see how they were feeling about coming back to in-person instruction.
He said 48% of those surveyed felt safe enough to return to hybrid learning on Jan. 11, while 38% had some kind of reservations about coming back, and 15% said they were neutral.
“With us, we have such a diverse clientele, we’ve got the outer lying schools in Bonanza and Chiloquin and Gilchrist, their dynamics are a little bit different than the suburban areas,” Nevala said.
Nevala said teachers at middle and high schools are more likely to have reservations about contracting the virus while teaching in-person classes.
“We had to shut down a cohort at Stearns, so we’ll see how the numbers go,” he added. “That sixth-grade cohort is in quarantine till Jan. 25.”
Szymoniak confirmed a cohort at Stearns was shut down temporarily due to COVID-19, though he said the cohort system helps the district remain open overall, while addressing the needs of those who contract the virus.
Szymoniak also defended the joint school boards decision to get back to classrooms on Jan. 11.
“When public health tells you to do something, that’s who I listen to,” Szymoniak said. “They felt it was better to have them in school than to not, because of the things they were seeing with kids not in school.”
Szymoniak said Gov. Kate Brown left it up to the districts to work with public health to decide when the district would go back to hybrid learning.
On Dec. 23, the governor said she wanted to have all Oregon students back in the classroom by Feb. 15.