Portland Faces Teacher Strike

Teachers and their supporters gather and protest on the initial day of a teacher’s strike in Portland, Ore., on November 1, 2023.

At the end of November, my children finally returned to school after a break that lasted more than three weeks due to an organized labor strike by teachers in Portland, Oregon. During this time, they missed a total of 11 days of instruction.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) is one of the largest school districts in the Pacific Northwest, serving more than 49,000 students across 81 schools. Last autumn, teachers went on strike while PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers negotiated a new agreement that would address various concerns, including compensation, planning time, working conditions, and other related issues. Finally, on November 26, an interim agreement was reached, allowing students to resume their classes the following day.

The families of PPS students were only given a few weeks’ notice about the potential strike starting on November 1. Although students were provided with laptops for remote learning, they did not receive any lesson plans, whether online or physical. To ensure that students didn’t miss meals, free lunches and breakfasts were offered at the schools every day.

Given the limited information and preparation time, parents in the PPS community faced various challenges. Many families, including my own, had to adjust their work schedules and childcare arrangements while trying to establish a new routine outside of school. The absence of clear instruction materials further complicated matters.

In a way, this sudden disruption to the school routine was reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. We had no idea when our children would be able to return to school, which caused anxiety and stress among parents. Each night, I anxiously awaited an email update from the district, which promised to inform us by 7 p.m. whether school would be in session the following day.

Fortunately, my husband and I were in a privileged position. Both of us had flexible jobs that allowed us to accommodate the strike without major disruptions. I work as a substitute teacher, so I have the freedom to choose my working days, while my husband owns a small business with capable employees who could manage operations in his absence.

Unfortunately, many other families were not as fortunate as we were. A friend of mine had to utilize almost all of her accumulated paid time off to stay at home with her kids during the strike. Another parent quickly coordinated with two other families to trade childcare responsibilities during weekdays, minimizing the impact on their work schedules.

In addition to our flexible work situations, my background in education also afforded us some advantages. Throughout the pandemic, I adapted to the role of a homeschooling parent, and I had to draw upon those skills once again during the strike. However, many parents without teaching experience struggled to cope without planned online lessons for their children.

During the initial days of the strike, my kids felt more excitement than dread or worry. They viewed it as unexpected time off from school and didn’t feel the same level of academic pressure as older students. Since we didn’t know how long the strike would last, I allowed them to enjoy a few fun-filled days. We even considered taking a short local vacation, but the uncertainty surrounding school reopening prevented us from doing so.

As the strike continued, I made the decision to transition into a “homeschool mode” if it extended into the following week. Consequently, I established reading logs for my children and required them to read for at least 30 minutes each day. I also had them log in to their school’s math platforms and complete a few lessons daily. Despite these academic activities, I still worried that it might not be sufficient.

At one point, we visited the teachers at the picket lines and inquired about any additional homework or resources that could support the kids’ learning. Unfortunately, the teachers explained that they didn’t have access to their school email or educational materials during the strike. Our family was left to navigate the situation on our own.

Notably, the strike not only took a toll on my children academically but also impacted them emotionally. Although we arranged phone calls and occasional playdates with friends, it couldn’t fully replace the sense of camaraderie and social interaction they experience with their classmates during regular school hours. Before long, the initial excitement wore off, and both kids started displaying signs of depression and anxiety. Without the structure of a regular school routine, their motivation and energy levels began to decline.

Since returning to school, the difference in their well-being is remarkable. Although it has only been a few days since the strike ended as of now, it’s evident that my children’s overall happiness and energy have significantly improved.

In this unexpected situation caused by a teacher strike, numerous families, including ours, experienced significant challenges. Children not only lost access to education provided by professionals but also missed out on vital relationships and socialization opportunities. Thousands of parents suddenly had to adjust their lives and assume the role of educators to the best of their abilities. The lesson learned from the Portland strike is that a consistent and stable educational environment is crucial for our children’s confidence, happiness, and sense of camaraderie.

Stephanie McCoy is an Oregon-based writer and mom.

The article A Teacher Strike Comes to Portland was originally published on Education Next.

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