As members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union continue their historic strike, another Portland Public Schools (PPS) union claims the district is asking its members to cross the picket line and perform work they're unqualified to do. 

Due to the Portland teachers' strike, roughly 45,000 Portland students are out of class for the second day in a row, and it's unclear when school will start up again. In order to accommodate high-need students during the strike, PPS has announced a reading coaching program for families to opt into while schools are closed.

The program would require PPS paraeducators, library assistants, and educational assistants to provide one-on-one academic coaching to students in grades K-3 who have "demonstrated the highest need for foundational literacy skills support" during the course of the strike. These staff members are part of the Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) union, which represents the district's clerical staff, paraprofessionals, and more. 

On October 30, two days before the teachers union strike began, PFSP filed a grievance with PPS management, alleging the district is "asking members to perform what [they] believe to be struck work." The grievance states PPS has violated the union's collective bargaining agreement with the district by asking PFSP members to perform academic coaching during the strike.

Specifically, PFSP leaders believe the district has violated a contract article stating union members "will not be required to perform work which is usually performed by striking employees." They also say PPS has violated part of the contract that states PSFP members do not develop lesson plans and must work under the direction of licensed staff. 

"Unlike during the pandemic, when students may have learned online alone or in small groups with a paraeducator or educational assistant under the direction of a licensed educator, there will be no PAT staff to provide lesson plans, offer direction in those plans' delivery, provide after-session coaching on how to adjust instruction, or monitor...students' independent education plans," Elizabeth Held, PSFP acting president, told the Mercury. "While the District has assigned building administrators as the teacher of record, there are simply too many students to for a principal to provide the necessary in-the-moment feedback that Portland students deserve." 

Maddi Parvankin is a PPS paraeducator who mostly works with special education students in grades K-2. She told the Mercury she feels PPS is asking people in her position to do work outside of their roles and responsibilities. 

"I understand that part of my regular job is doing academic intervention and using curriculum to help kids who are struggling," Parvankin said. "But what's not part of my job is creating these lessons...[without] getting feedback from a certified teacher about how it's going and what a student's needs are. I haven't been to school for that." 

Parvankin also said "reading coaches" have been instructed to call families to set up virtual tutoring sessions, which goes against past practice and previous direction. 

"Paraeducators have been instructed to never call parents. That's the job of the teacher," Parvankin said. "[The paraeducator handbook] names confidentiality as one of the reasons for that. But now we're expected to call parents and coordinate with them on when we're going to be providing this academic coaching." 

PFSP members told the Mercury the district instructed on how to disguise their phone numbers if they were concerned about privacy when calling families.

Shelly Kellams, a paraeducator at McDaniel High School, told the Mercury PFSP members are scared they'll be fired if they don't "follow through with these illegal plans." Oregon labor law doesn't allow unionized public employees to participate in a strike outside their own bargaining unit, so PFSP members aren't able to decline work in solidarity with the teachers' union, without fear of employer retaliation.

"There [is] so much confusion on what to do, and the stress level it is causing is totally unfair," Kellams said. "We can't somehow come in magically with two days of training and work with these opinion is that the district is trying to get through this strike by having us do teachers' work because they have to offer something to the students, and apparently, we are their best solution...even if it's not in our contract."
The district disputes PSFP's claims. In a statement to the Mercury, PPS Chief of Research, Assessment, and Accountability and bargaining team member Renard Adams said paraeducators and educational assistants "will be reinforcing curriculum that has already been delivered." 
"It's basic reading support, phonics, etc., which is part of their regular duties," Adams said. "They are not being asked to create or deliver new content. Again, we are asking them to reinforce skills that have already been taught, which is one of the amazing things they do in our classrooms for students, every day." 
A statement from a PAT spokesperson, however, said PPS's decision to ask paraprofessionals to do this work indicates the district is "scrambling" without "dedicated, licensed and experienced educators in schools." 
"Our students deserve more than 'virtual tutoring.' They deserve fully-funded, safely-maintained schools with enough staff, including qualified, dedicated educators in every classroom, to meet students' needs and help them learn," PAT's statement said. "This is another example of PPS pushing school staff beyond their training and capacity rather than investing in students and fully staffing schools."

PPS and the teachers' union have planned to return to the bargaining table on Friday, November 3. If the strike continues into next week, PFSP members have been instructed to begin coaching on Monday.