By MIDGE PIERCE

Editor’s note: A concerned parent had more to say about how PPS is handling the sudden resignation of Buckman Elementary’s principal. It’s been added in italics after the eighth paragraph in the story below.

10/5 Reporter’s note: Since initial publication of this story, and after parents expressed upset at the lack of Portland Public School administrator’s response to the loss of Buckman Elementary’s Principal mere weeks into the school year, PPS finally announced that it would hold a virtual meeting for families about the replacement selection process. The notice also indicated that PPS would assign a much-requested Assistant Principal to the SE Portland school. This is but one of many challenges parents throughout the district are facing since in-person school resumed.

Pandemic-weary parents who awaited the start of in-person classes with equal parts relief and worry now face growing frustration with Portland Public Schools’ perceived inability to ensure their children’s safety and well-being.

PPS had more than a year to prepare for school re-openings during Covid-19. Yet still, say parents, problems just pile on.

Top of the list, of course, is the Delta variant. “It’s ironic that the Covid situation is so much worse than it was at the beginning of the pandemic when we shut everything down,” says a parent of a student too young to be vaccine eligible.

A screenshot from Portland Public Schools COVID-19 Dashboard, where parents and the public can get information on statistics collected.

At Southeast Portland’s Buckman Elementary, fear is compounded by the recent announcement that the school lost its third principal in three years roughly three weeks after school started. Instead of assurances that a suitable replacement would be found, families were initially told that their principal would be replaced by a building administrator. “What does that even mean?” asked a parent of a first and third grader, wondering what kind of training a replacement might have.

Following a cryptic, less-than-forthcoming message from resigning Principal Jeff Wilebski, social media posts clamored for greater staff support to lend stability to classrooms. Parents wondered if a better vetting process could have prevented the disruption of losing another principal.

One sensed problems when her third grader came home distraught that the principal cancelled soccer without explanation. Hearing that it was because of a playground disagreement, a concerned mom responded, “What are we teaching kids when we can’t try to help them solve problems?”

A Portland public school in Southeast Portland

PPS says it has a robust HR process that includes community input and vetting with an “exhaustive” background check, according to Deputy Superintendent Shawn Bird and Chief of Staff Jonathan Garcia.

“Principal Wilebski announced his resignation for personal reasons,” according to the district media liaison. Still, some observers felt the hiring process was rushed because of Covid demands and district unpreparedness.

Ten days after the principal’s resignation letter circulated, Buckman families still had not heard from the district, according to parent Caitlin Cranley. “To date, PPS has not sent out any communication about the principal situation, neither to acknowledge that he is gone, or to tell families what the next steps will be.” Buckman’s PTA held an emergency meet online to process the transition.

But with no formal advisories from PPS, parents feel ignored. While Cranley recognizes many schools had Principal shifts over the summer, with school now in session, she says timely communication is critical in public education.

Amid the uncertainty of the sudden resignation, the PTA says the resignation presents opportunities. “Maybe good will come from this,” a member suggested. “Maybe we will finally get the assistant principal we need.” Indeed, a flurry of phone and online pleas seem to have netted promises for an AP from PPS administrators.

Buckman is an arts and performance school that encourages and enjoys a high level of parental involvement. It also welcomes a percentage of students needing additional support for special needs.

Like many employers nationwide, Portland Public Schools is hiring— and having trouble filling vacancies. They’ve had to cancel some routes to accommodate bus driver shortages.

For an Abernethy Elementary parent, fury mounted over the school’s slow response to an overnight, four-alarm fire that smoldered nearby throughout the school day. “My children were breathing in smoke and fumes from unknown chemicals before the principal announced that the windows should be closed.” (Windows are generally left open as a Covid precaution.) “We don’t know what toxins got into classrooms. Students were put in danger that could have been avoided if action had been taken sooner.”

In many ways, elementary-age children are the most vulnerable to pandemic impacts. They are the Covid Generation that has borne the brunt of disruption in schools and homes. “These kids were just starting to find a rhythm to their learning when it was interrupted. We parents did the best we could at home, only to have new setbacks,” said a parent outside Glencoe Elementary. 

Throughout the school system, questions circulate about whether three feet nose-to-nose classroom separations are sufficient and the wisdom of shared lockers in grade schools. Rob Wardwell, father of a son at Atkinson Elementary and a daughter at Tabor Middle says PPS has been slow to provide basic information. “Kids are generally good about masking. But how do you keep students socially-distanced when one-way hallways don’t work? My middle schooler was alarmed by all the huffing and puffing during a fitness class.”

His wife Kirin Beyer, a nurse who has seen too many tragic Covid outcomes, says parents count on schools not just to keep kids safe but to help them feel safe. “Being back in school is good for students. But it comes with risk.” She says checks the database of Covid cases several times a day.

An image from PPS’s Back to School 2021 website, where the district describes its Covid precautions and rules.

To reduce risk, PPS has been considering requiring Covid vaccinations for eligible students over 12 years old. Concerns, however, have arisen among school board members that the proposal would negatively affect BIPOC families.

In response to complaints about staff turnover, tales of bus drivers leaving kids stranded, and the failure of PPS to anticipate needs as obvious as ordering tents to protect students during rainy, outdoor physically-distanced lunch hours— the district said that answers are on its Back to School webpage.

To charges that the district was slow to provide basic information such as what learning options are available to students sent home with Covid or exposure, a district spokesperson refers families to Learning During Quarantine or Isolation.

The document describes the district’s layered, so-called “swiss-cheese” approach to re-opening that includes improved ventilation systems, vaccine requirements for staff, and mask mandates for students.

PPS now says it will make Covid screening tests available for students whose parents want them. Even so, healthcare worker Beyer points out, “Parents who opt in are likely to be the most conscientious about keeping their kids Covid safe. Those who don’t agree to testing, are likely to be those most at risk of having sick kids.”

An image from KOIN’s Oct. 2 report on PPS’ announcement that they will be providing free Covid screenings for students.

Back at Buckman, parents and teachers brace for another challenge: What they call the October shuffle (described as a way the district tries to balance equity with specific school needs). “Maybe we will finally get support,” said a staffer who works with special needs students.

One thing parents likely agree on: Schools should be the first line of community-building, leading the way toward safety and stability for children. The future depends on it.

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Midge Pierce is a recovering media consultant and personality who worked from East to West Coast Coast on newspapers, in TV for network and public television affiliates and for cable programmer Starz where she ran a channel for young people known as tweens. She is currently a semi-retired freelance writer in SE Portland enjoying time spent with grandkids. She is passionate about finding balance between old Portland and new.