Banks School District. Photo: Chas Hundley

As the start to Banks’ school year — September 8 — draws closer, the Banks School District administration has met at least three times already with the Banks Education Association, a union representing 58 teaching staff members in Banks, to hash out items of concern as the district gears up for an academic year unlike any seen in school history. 

Part of these negotiations is a requirement that would see staff teach their online classes from district buildings three out of five days each week, despite the state deeming it too risky for students to be in those same buildings until COVID-19 case counts have dropped. 

In an email outlining the Banks Education Association’s stance on issues surrounding school reopening to the Banks Post, Banks Education Association representative Ashley Thomas, who teaches 6th and 7th grade at Banks Middle School, outlined some of the activities the union and the district have been working on during negotiations. 

“As of [August 20], Banks School District is requiring their staff to be on site while teaching students remotely. Teachers will be working from their classrooms virtually guiding students through the Accelus curriculum. In surveys conducted by the Banks Education Association, many Association members have expressed concerns about returning on site. Many of them involve safety concerns for themselves, or family members,” Thomas wrote. 

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Thomas noted that Banks School District superintendent Jeff Leo and the Banks School Board said during a negotiation with the union that they were following Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority guidelines in crafting their reopening plans, and that the district would be adding additional safety measures to increase safety as staff return to district buildings. 

“They have continued to believe that a return to the building will be safe for all, and we have spent weeks collaborating with them to ensure we have extra safety items in place and a clear plan for reopening. As of [August 20] the district has agreed to 2 optional offsite work days for staff, as this will allow for deep cleaning to occur and air to be ventilated before returning on site the following day,” Thomas said.

“As of [August 20], Jeff Leo is not willing to take family members into consideration for workplace accommodations, but he did express a willingness to work with members that are at high risk for severe complications if they contracted COVID-19. He gave no indication that they would be allowed to work remotely, but noted that with proper medical documentation the district would determine if they qualify for accommodations. He cited one accommodation example of arriving on site 30 minutes later to avoid the crowds in the hallways.” Thomas explained.

In an email to the Banks Post, Banks School District superintendent Jeff Leo confirmed that teachers would be required to teach onsite for three days each week. 

“With the Oregon Department of Education recently updated guidance on August 11th, there is potential within the next month that we are able to do very limited in-person instruction for small groups of students.  This can happen if COVID numbers continue to drop.  Staff will be needed on-site for this,” Leo said. 

Leo outlined the following as reasons the district was requiring onsite teaching: 

“-- Students will see teachers and staff working in classrooms that are familiar to them and will help with the social-emotional well being of students.  

-- Being on-site allows staff to collaborate in real-time, communicate immediately and be able to do this by practicing safe social distancing guidelines.  Having the ability to have those small conversations that are unscheduled and unplanned and can benefit students when staff can have those quick conversations.

-- Internet reliability is not a question at the school.  

-- We will need all staff members preparing protocols for a safe return for students.   

-- Teachers and staff will have educational materials close at hand, including technology they may not have at home.”

Leo noted that staff will be able to socially distance themselves while working in district buildings. 

“We acknowledge that we have a huge challenge ahead of us. We have to make this 100 times better than what took place in the spring. Not only in our district, but districts throughout the state,” Leo said.  

COVID-19 related difficulties have struck more than teaching staff at the Banks School District; in early August, 13 classified employees were laid off abruptly by the district as it shuffled how schools could reopen.

"Because of requirements to start in Comprehensive Distance Learning until the metrics set forth by the Governor and OHA to allow us to open, and we anticipate this to be well into the school year, we had to restructure staffing at the school district. Providing school in a Comprehensive Distance Learning model is very different from an on-site model and what is required to best serve our students," Leo said at the time.

In a phone call with the Banks Post, Judy Stone, president of the Banks Association of Classified Employees, Banks’ union for employees such as administrative staff, instructional assistants, and others said that the union, while not prepared for the news of 13 of their members being laid off in early August, are trying to stay positive. 

“I’m very proud of the classified members of the [Banks School District]. We’re trying to be very positive and optimistic with the situation,” said Stone, who noted that there is hope to bring back those who were laid off at a later date. “It’s not an easy situation.”

Stone noted that their members have been busy preparing for the school year start.

Tony Richeson, president of the Banks Education Association and a Banks Middle School science teacher, spoke by phone to the Banks Post, though he said his remarks were not the stance of the Banks Education Association, but rather his own from the perspective of a teacher in the district with eight years under his belt and a parent of students in Banks; Richeson said he has two children enrolled in the Banks School District. 

Richeson said that many of his fellow teachers in the district have concerns about the risk of returning to work in district buildings. 

“They cite things like high risk, maybe not them specifically but a family member that they live with; they cite concerns about other staff members maybe not taking the risk seriously and not following the protective cautions that they need to manage and maintain security and safety,” he said. 

He also said that some teachers are concerned about the HVAC system and air quality in some of the older district buildings. 

He said he believes that by requiring staff to return onsite, it could cause labor conflicts — and a legal liability on the part of the school district — down the road. 

“They could make this an optional requirement so that those teachers that need the resources and supplies that are available onsite, will come in onsite,” he said. “The teachers work hard for their community and have been and that’s the only thing that the teachers want to do, is get back, and we want to get back to teaching as best we can. If I don’t have the capacity to do my job from a remote location, then I would figure out a way to get that capacity, or come on site.” 

In the neighboring Forest Grove School District, the administration has made on-site teaching optional for staff. “We are not requiring teachers to teach in the building during distance learning, they can choose to teach remotely,” said FGSD Director of Communications and Engagement David Warner. 

“We are professionals who work above and beyond our job description,” Thomas said in the statement from the Banks Education Association. “We feel excited that the district agreed to work with us on on/off site options for 2 of our 5 work days, as it offers some safety assurances and flexibility to our staff/members who feel safer to be working from home. We know as we move in and out of virtual and in-person learning that our flexibility to work from home twice a week will change, but for now we feel like starting off the year with on/off site options is what our staff felt most comfortable with at this time. We are already so excited to see our staff, students and families virtually in September, and we will be even more thrilled to see them in our classrooms as soon as our county begins to meet the guidelines presented in the statewide matrix for reopening schools.”

Editor’s note: Due to the changing nature of labor negotiations and rapid-fire COVID-19 changes, the information in this story — taken from interviews, documents, and statements in mid and late August — is subject to change by the time you read this.