Forty-seven teachers and certified staff members at Summit High School asked Bend-La Pine Schools leaders in a letter Monday to hold off on reopening schools until they can be vaccinated. The letter was sent to the Bend-La Pine School Board and Superintendent Lora Nordquist late Monday afternoon. It states that rising COVID-19 cases locally, as well as the recent discovery of a new COVID-19 strain found in the United Kingdom, are causes for waiting to bring back high school students for in-person learning as planned on Feb. 8.
“Rushing back to school now seems foolhardy, especially with the promise of a vaccine on the near horizon,” the letter states.
Local COVID-19 case counts have begun to rise again after a brief late-December lull, according to data from Deschutes County Health Services.
James Williams — an English teacher at Summit who wrote the letter — told The Bulletin that unionized staff at other Bend-La Pine high schools are working on sending the school board their own letters before the board’s meeting Tuesday night. About 65% of unionized teachers at Summit signed his letter, he said.
Teachers at Summit are scared of returning to teaching in-person, Williams said.
He understands the school district will enact measures to keep staff safe, but that only goes so far when teenagers make bad choices, he said.
“We know outside of school, they’re not always making the best decisions,” Williams said. “They’re not wearing masks, piling in cars to go up to (Mt.) Bachelor.”
If the school board and superintendent choose to not postpone the Feb. 8 reopening date, Williams said the 47 Summit teachers will discuss their next steps. They might consider not showing up to in-person school, but that has not been decided yet, he said.
“I can’t emphasize enough that we want to get back into classrooms too, perhaps more than anybody,” Williams told The Bulletin. “We want to do it safely, and we want our leaders to help us do that.”
There was a small gathering in front of the Bend-La Pine Administrative Building late Monday afternoon, with several dozen people asking the district to continue offering distance learning as a safe alternative to in-person school.
Williams said the Summit teachers’ letter wasn’t sponsored by the Bend Education Association teachers’ union. Last week, teachers’ union President Sarah Barclay said her union would not delay the start of in-person school until vaccines are available for teachers.
Teachers’ unions from five large Oregon school districts, including Portland, Salem-Keizer and Eugene, wrote a similar letter to Gov. Kate Brown last week, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Superintendent Nordquist and multiple school board members did not respond to requests for comment.
Certain Bend-La Pine staff members who work with vulnerable populations of students — including life skills teachers and educational assistants, educators of students with visual and hearing impairments, English Language Learner specialists and more — will begin getting their first vaccinations Wednesday, according to Julianne Repman, director of safety and communications for Bend-La Pine. More than 430 staffers will receive an invitation to schedule a vaccination appointment this week, she wrote in an email.
Vaccination of other educators is expected to begin in February, Repman wrote.
The school board is expected to discuss school reopening at its Tuesday night meeting. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. and will be streamed on the school board’s YouTube channel.