While recent bargaining developments may increase the chances of Portland Public Schools (PPS) students being back in school before the end of November, the PPS teachers’ strike— currently on day 12— is already one of the longest in recent American history. No matter when the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union and PPS management come to a contract agreement, however, the lengthy strike is sure to have long-term impacts for district teachers, students, and families.
One of the most practical reverberations people are asking about: How will students make up school days they’ve missed as a result of the strike? While the strike has technically taken place over 13 weekdays, two of those were already scheduled as days off for students. One of those, Veteran’s Day, was a previously-scheduled holiday for all PPS staff and students. So while teachers have been on strike for 12 days, students have missed 11 days of school.
Oregon law requires students to be in school for a minimum number of hours that differs depending on their grade. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade must be in school for 900 hours a year, while most high school students are required to receive 990 hours of instructional time. High school seniors are only required to receive 966 hours.
Beyond that requirement, the most pertinent state rule is that the school day must not exceed eight and a half hours for high school students and eight hours for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Considering most PPS students are currently in school for at least two hours less than that per day, there’s some room for flexibility when it comes to making up the lost classroom time.
According to PPS Communications Director Will Howell, the district schedules students for more instructional time than the state minimum— but not by much.
“We have certain days set aside for inclement weather, or other reasons that we might have to close down schools,” Howell told the Mercury. “We operate pretty lean. So [without the teachers’ strike], we were already just skating by.”
Howell said once PAT and PPS management work out a contract, “a bunch of stuff has to happen.”
“I know this is something everybody wants to know, but it's just not a clean answer at the moment,” he said. “Once we finish negotiating the contract, we also have to negotiate with PAT about how we do the rest of the year.”
In addition to extending the school year or lengthening days, one option the district has is to petition the Oregon Department of Education for a reduction waiver on the number of required instructional hours.
“But that means our students are getting less instructional time, so that's not good,” he said.
Oregon students already spend less time in the classroom than many children in other states. In Washington, all students are required to attain at least 1,000 instructional hours annually, with high school students required to have 1,080 hours of instruction per year. This, in addition to Oregon’s rather libertarian, anti-tax mechanism of funding public schools, which hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, has some people seeking state-level education reforms.
As far as making up for the strike goes, both PAT and PPS leaders have said they’re committed to making up for lost time. In a recent Oregon Public Broadcasting interview, PAT President Angela Bonilla said one union proposal is to lengthen school days by 15 minutes. This suggestion has drawn some criticism, but it may be one of the least-invasive ways to make up the hours.
At this point, it’s still not clear when the strike will end. PPS announced Thursday, November 16 that school will be canceled until at least November 27— but the entirety of Thanksgiving week was already set as holiday time for students, with November 20 and 21 scheduled for parent-teacher conferences (now-postponed). In a Thursday afternoon media release, a PAT representative expressed the union’s frustration with the district’s announcement.
“Without conferring with the PAT bargaining team, and in the middle of an otherwise productive bargaining day, PPS district managers made the unilateral decision to keep schools closed through November 27. It’s unfortunate the district made this decision,” the union statement reads. “Portland educators plan to continue bargaining and are hopeful that a fair settlement can be reached that would get students back to school and allow the first half of next week to be used as planning days or even possibly for student instruction.”
PPS and PAT are set to continue negotiations through the weekend.