A Teacher Strike Comes to Portland

Shades of the pandemic descended as families scrambled and our kids struggled
Teachers and their supporters hold signs, chant, and rally the crowd on the first day of a teacher's strike in Portland, Ore., Nov. 1, 2023.
Teachers and their supporters hold signs, chant, and rally the crowd on the first day of a teachers’ strike in Portland, Ore., Nov. 1, 2023.

My kids returned to school in late November for the first time since Halloween. For over three weeks, public school students of Portland, Oregon, were out of school due to an educator strike. During that period, our children missed 11 days of instruction.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) is one of the largest school districts in the Pacific Northwest, with over 49,000 students in 81 schools. Last fall, teachers went on strike while the PPS district and the Portland Association of Teachers went head-to-head at the bargaining table over matters such as pay, planning time, working conditions, and other issues. The parties finally reached a tentative agreement on November 26, allowing students to return to classrooms the next day.

The families of PPS were given only a few weeks’ notice that the strike might start November 1. Student-assigned laptops were sent home, but no lesson plans (online or physical) accompanied them. Free lunches and breakfasts were offered at the school each day so students wouldn’t miss meals.

With so little information and time to prepare, PPS parents scrambled. Rearranging work and childcare, trying to prepare a new out-of-school routine, and attempting to fill in the blanks on instruction were at the top priorities for many families like mine.

In a way, this sudden cessation of school routines reminded me of the early days of the pandemic—especially the fact that we had no idea when students would return. As it had in 2020, the uncertainty and lack of routine made parents feel anxious and stressed. Every night I helplessly watched my email for news. When the strike started, the district told us that each night by 7 p.m. it would inform us whether school would happen the next day.

My husband and I were very fortunate. Both of us have flexible jobs—I as a substitute teacher who can pick and choose when I work, and he as a small-business owner with plenty of employees who can run things without him being there. The strike, luckily, did not affect our work.

Other families weren’t so fortunate. One friend had to use nearly all the paid time off she had accumulated over the year so she could stay home with her kids during the strike. Another had to scramble quickly and coordinate with two other parents to trade childcare on weekdays to allow everyone to miss as little work as possible.

Our family also benefited from my background in education. During the pandemic, I was able to adapt to the new role of a homeschooling parent, and I had to call on those skills again during the strike. I know many other parents who have no teaching experience and were at a loss for what to do without planned online lessons for their kids.

The first few days of the strike, my kids didn’t feel dread or worry, just excitement. To them, it was fun that they had unexpected days off. As elementary students (ages 8 and 11), they don’t have much homework, so they didn’t feel the anxiety that older students surely felt. Because we didn’t know how long the strike would last, I told them we could just have fun for a few days. (We even considered taking a mini vacation locally, but we couldn’t risk it knowing that school could open the following day.)

To cover my bases, I determined that if the strike lasted into the following week, we’d be getting into “homeschool mode”.

Sure enough, the strike continued. So, I made reading logs and had the kids read their regular 30 minutes a day. I also had them log in to their school math platforms and do a few lessons a day. Even though they were doing something academic each day, I still worried that it wasn’t enough.

One day, we visited the teachers at the picket lines. I asked them if there was any additional homework they could send me to support the kids’ learning. They told me that during the strike, teachers didn’t have access to their school email or educational materials. Clearly we were on our own.

It was obvious that my kids took an academic hit during the strike, but the social-emotional tolls were substantial as well. Although we arranged phone calls and occasional playdates with friends, it wasn’t the same as being with their classmates for 30 hours a week. Before long, the excitement of the strike wore off. Both kids showed signs of feeling depressed and anxious. Without a regular school routine, their motivation and energy started to fade.

Now that they’re back in school, the difference in their well-being is huge. At the time of this writing, it’s only been a few days since the strike ended, and it’s clear that my kids’ happiness and energy have improved dramatically.

In this situation of an unexpected educator strike, our family and countless others were affected greatly. Kids not only lost their access to an education provided by professionals, they were also denied important relationships. Thousands of parents suddenly had to rearrange their lives and tried to become the best impersonation of an educator they could. The lesson we learned in Portland is that consistency in an educational setting gives our kids confidence, happiness, and an essential sense of camaraderie.

Stephanie McCoy is a writer and mom in Oregon.

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