(Update: Adding video, comments by protest participants, district response)
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Last week, Bend-La Pine Schools announced detailed plans to bring kindergarten through third-grade students back to in-person learning on Jan. 25, with fourth- and fifth-graders soon after and middle and high schoolers to follow.
Some parents, school staff and health providers critical of the reopening planted hundreds of flags at the school district's downtown office at an event late Monday afternoon, representing the over 100 students who have died of COVID-19 nationwide, as well as the over 300 school personnel.
They are calling on the district to do two things: First, they officials to wait to reopen school for in-person learning until all staff members who want to be vaccinated have the option to do so.
One of the event's organizers, Silver Rail Elementary teacher Emily Gibson, said, "We need to be able to support them, without forcing our families and students and staff that are at risk into a situation that does not feel safe.”
"You'll notice that I'm wearing a mask in my own home right now," Gibson added during the Zoom interview. "And that's because I was exposed to the virus last week, while we were doing limited in-person instruction. It's when we have a small group of kids who really need support and were all together in school."
The group said in a statement, "We are so close to this, just a few more weeks. Governor Brown has moved teachers up in priority to receive the vaccine, to help accelerate the return to in-person learning."
The group continued, "But with the slower than expected roll out of the vaccine in Oregon, it could be a while before teachers are vaccinated, as health care workers and nursing home residents rightly have priority."
Secondly, they want the school district to keep the full "comprehensive distance learning" online option in place, along with in-person learning, so those teachers and students who can’t or don't wish to return to schools can continue online. They said the less-extensive "Bend-La Pine Online" option is not enough to keep students engaged and learning as they should.
"The district and staff have invested a great deal of time and resources into making CDL a powerful alternative to in-person instruction." the group stated. "Additionally, being able to continue teaching CDL would allow staff who are unable to teach in-person another choice beyond taking a Leave of Absence or resigning."
Bend-La Pine teachers and staff are not alone in voicing concerns about schools reopening too quickly. The leaders of teachers'' unions in five large Oregon school districts said in a joint statement last week they want a vaccine or health indicators to support reopening before they return.
"We want desperately to be back in physical classrooms with our students -- as soon as we can do so safely, without needlessly risking the lives and health of students, educators or members of our community," they wrote.
The Lake Oswego Education Association is also sharply critical of the move, issuing a statement Monday headlined, "Lake Oswego teachers don't want to die or kill their families," OPB reported.
"Over 500 children and school personnel have died from Covid-19 during this pandemic. Let us hope that the Bend La Pine community sees zero student or staff deaths. Let us keep safe so we can all meet up on the other side of this with no one missing."
Bend Senior High student Jade Jager, who attended Monday's event, said she fears returning to soon.
"’I'd be generally terrified," she said. "I have a brother with some auto-immune diseases -- not to mention, it’s a pandemic.”
Jager said she wants to see either cases decline or teachers get vaccinated before the schools reopen.
“It is just asking to spread the virus and asking to blow up," she said. "It is just going to detriment the population in Oregon and hurt so many people.”
The school district announced late Monday that more than 400 staff members will be invited this week to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while others must wait until at least next month, when further priorities are determined by a state advisory committee, and more vaccines are available.
They also said a comprehensive distance learning option will be provided, though more details weren't immediately available.
“I would like our district to offer three choices: In-person, CDL and BLPO. I am advocating for this because it’s the best thing we can do to serve all our families and to keep our community safe. I also must advocate for our educators. Some are eager to return to our buildings, and they should be allowed to do so. However, educators who do not feel comfortable should have the choice to remain in CDL with the families who feel the same.” Amy Tatum, Family Nurse Practitioner in Bend and Bend La Pine School Board member (Link to full statement here: https://www.facebook.com/amybtatom/posts/3745895185432674 )
“Currently, in CDL my child interacts with her teacher five days a week for one to three hours on any given day. During non-direct/live time her teacher has lesson plans, videos, podcasts that keep the kids engaged and actively learning. While of course this isn’t “ideal” it is far better than sending them into unsafe situations of in-person. My child is able to see her teacher, ask questions, feel connected; she is able to see her peers and engage in collaborative learning. CDL is currently the BEST way to keep our kids, teachers and community safe. Going to in-person learning at this time is irresponsible and a reprehensible decision.”—Monica Vines, Bend La Pine Schools Parent and Bend resident
“The exposure is just too great. I think each and every teacher in this district without exception, and that includes classified staff, should not be forced to return to a situation they feel is a risk to their well being. They should be afforded the same opportunity as the students to not return and to continue to teach remotely. The loud demands of some community members should not be allowed to put the welfare and health of others at risk.” Louise, Bend resident, parent of a Bend La Pine teacher, grandparent of Bend La Pine students
“By telling our students and families who are not planning to return to in-person instruction at this time that they have to leave their home school, leave their school community, their classmates, and the teachers and staff who have sustained them through this very difficult time… this goes against everything we know about what students and families need right now: stability, belonging, connection. Our students are not falling behind, they are surviving a pandemic. Continuing CDL will help those who need it to not only survive, but thrive.” –Emily Gibson, Bend La Pine teacher and Bend resident
“At a point when we are having state-wide, continuous spread, opening schools for in-person instruction can only be described as sociocidal.” --Jay Girard, RN, Bend resident
"I can't speak for the High School's plans, but I've learned that Middle Schoolers will be getting HALF as much direct schooling in hybrid than they have with CDL. Are two In-Person days that expose our kids and families to unnecessary danger, really so superior to 4 WebEx days of classes?" --Athey Moravetz, Bend resident
“Quite simply, it is not right to REQUIRE that ALL high school students must completely disrupt the routines and schedules they’ve worked so hard to get in place, in order to either switch to BLPO, or to be subjected to the risks of hybrid/in-person learning, to accomplish less than 7.5 hours per week of actual instructional time in the school building – in the weeks that aren’t disrupted by infections and exposures. Surely, the District can figure out a way to continue Comprehensive Distance Learning as an option for the remainder of this school year, and avoid the myriad negative effects that a significant number of the students in this district would otherwise be subjected to.” --Eric and Melissa Smith, Parents of a Bend La Pine high school student and Bend residents