juniper classroom

Carrie Price sets up her socially distanced classroom at Juniper Elementary School as Bend-La Pine Schools prepared for full five-day-a-week school in Bend on April 1, 2021.

Two months ago, Central Oregon teachers began receiving COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of much of the general population. By now, just about every teacher in Deschutes County who wanted to be vaccinated has been.

Because of this and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools, the teachers’ union leader for Bend-La Pine Schools said most of her union’s members feel less nervous about returning full-time to in-person classes this month.

“Everyone having access to the vaccine if they want to be vaccinated, it ensures the educators’ safety,” said Sarah Barclay, president of the Bend Education Association. “There are a few people who still have concerns about the return to in-person, but the majority are excited.”

It’s a similar story in the Redmond School District, where Barry Branaugh — a board member of the Redmond Education Association — said he hasn’t heard many teachers express concerns about COVID-19 safety recently.

“It’s not much of a factor anymore,” he said.

Both Barclay and Branaugh said that local teachers are itching to see their students full time again after a couple months of part-online school.

“The majority of our teachers are really excited to be back with students,” Barclay said. “That’s where they do their best work. That’s where students learn the most.”

The unusual hybrid schedule for Redmond and Ridgeview high schools — two half-days, four days a week — has particularly been a pain for teachers at those schools, said Branaugh, who teaches social studies at Ridgeview High.

“The consistency of a schedule that they’re used to, where they’re here four days a week full time, I think will be good,” he said.

In Bend-La Pine, all grades returned to a full-time in-person school schedule on Monday. Redmond schools will do the same on April 19.

Although teachers appreciate Bend-La Pine actually enforcing COVID-19 mitigation rules like mask wearing and social distancing, they don’t appreciate having to be the ones to make sure students follow those rules, Barclay said. It’s also nearly impossible, particularly at the larger high schools, to enforce distancing rules in cramped hallways, she said.

“When you talk about a high school with 1,500 to 2,000 students, and 75 teachers, there’s not enough people to make sure (rules) are being followed all the time,” Barclay said. “Educators are spending their whole time being the enforcement police, rather than being able to have time with students between classes, or have a break or go to the bathroom.”

Dave McKae, a math teacher at Cascade Middle School, said Bend-La Pine Schools’ transparency on COVID-19 cases in schools — and the small number of cases since schools reopened — has reassured him about teaching in-person.

“Seeing how limited that has been has definitely made everyone feel a little more comfortable,” McKae said. “We’re not seeing evidence of transmission at school, between students or staff members.”

Not counting a February outbreak of Summit High School students — allegedly caused by a maskless party outside school — Bend-La Pine Schools has had 17 mini-outbreaks of COVID-19 in 2021, with 18 students and five school staffers testing positive, according to Oregon Health Authority data. Redmond has had four small school outbreaks, with three students and one staffer testing positive.

The vast majority of these school-reported outbreaks only resulted in one student or staffer testing positive, according to state data.

Nationally, many teachers are also feeling more comfortable returning to their classrooms.

The American Federation of Teachers — a national union primarily representing educators with about 1.7 million membersconducted a nationwide survey of 1,702 members in late March and early April about returning to school.

Eighty percent of K-12 teachers said they were already vaccinated, and another 6% said they planned to get vaccinated, according to the survey.

Only 11% of K-12 school staff surveyed said their school district went too far in returning to in-person school.

Due mostly to the wide availability of vaccines for educators — along with rapid COVID-19 testing, enforced mask wearing and social distancing — many teachers nationwide feel more comfortable returning to in-person school, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“The vaccines have been a real game changer,” Weingarten told The Bulletin. “The fact that educators have rolled up their sleeves, both to get the shot … and to make sure they’re meeting the needs of students, is pretty incredible.”

Teachers in Oregon are mainly represented by the other major nationwide teachers’ union, the National Education Association, but unionized Oregon school support staff are members of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten said.

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