Special education substitute teacher Elizabeth Adams, of Salem, protests plans to reopen Oregon schools in-person outside the state capitol on July 27, 2020. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Citing concerns about the safety of students and educators, Salem-Keizer’s teachers union is calling for Oregon’s second-largest school district to start school all online in the fall.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association — which represents about 2,300 teachers, counselors and other licensed school workers — voted last week to endorse distance learning for all students as district administrators scramble to develop plans for the fall amid shifting state guidelines.

“Salem-Keizer Public Schools should return to in person learning only when there is a scientific consensus that the virus has been sufficiently contained within the community and that any outbreaks can be contained by local health authorities,” the association said in a statement released last week. ‘At this time, it is clear in-person learning is too dangerous for our students, educators, and community.” 

Salem educators were among hundreds of parents and teachers who gathered Monday afternoon for a drive-by protest through the streets of Salem and in front of the Capitol urging school districts across the state to keep the schoolroom doors shut until the virus is better contained.

Jacquelyn Smetana, a Hallman Elementary School teacher, said she planned to attend because the back-and-forth involved with a combination of in-person and online schooling would be too disruptive for students and teachers. She pointed to difficulties of quarantining staff and students whenever there is a suspected case of Covid. 

“Classrooms will be susceptible to spread, and these students and staff will find themselves in a similar pattern of crisis teaching as we did this spring. Until community spread is decreasing, our time, efforts and resources would be better spent bolstering our online instruction for the fall,” Smetana wrote in a Facebook message.

Elizabeth Adams, a teacher who lives in Salem, held a sign outside the Capitol reading “Keep US SAFE” as she waited for other educators and parents to drive by in cars. Adams said she’s asthmatic and lives with her 95-year-old father “which really puts me in a precarious hotspot.” As a special education substitute, it’s not unusual for her to work for a dozen or more nearby school districts over the course of a year, a situation which would increase her potential exposure to the virus significantly.

“We all want to go back but we want to go back in a safe way,” she said.

Salem-Keizer district administrators have not yet said whether they’ll delay the start of in-person classes in the fall, though a growing number of large districts around the U.S. have rolled back plans to reopen in-person as cases of the virus have climbed.

Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education last week tightened guidelines for schools planning to reopen in-person, saying nearly all students must wear face coverings during the day. 

Student cohorts would also be limited to a maximum of 100 students. That means a kindergartener would have to ride the bus to school, go to class, have recess and eat lunch without coming into close contact with more than 100 peers over the course of a school week.

The district will put out more detailed plans for the start of school Tuesday, district spokesman Aaron Harada said. District administrators will also brief the school board in an evening work session.

This article was updated on July 28 to more accurately describe the number of protestors.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.