Digest: Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Metro Council appoints Duncan Hwang to represent District 6

After interviews with six candidates, Metro council members chose Duncan Hwang to fill the seat left empty after Bob Stacey resigned last year. Hwang received the majority of support from both community members and elected officials. He received endorsements from Stacey, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Oregon State Representative Khanh Pham, and others. While five of the Metro councilors voted for Hwang, Councilor Gerritt Rosenthal was the sole dissenter with a vote for Terri Preeg Riggsby. Hwang will be sworn in January 12 and his term will last until the beginning of 2023. The District 6 seat will be on the May ballot. Both Hwang and Preeg Riggsby are running, although Hwang’s position as an incumbent and all of the support he’s already gathered will likely give him an edge over the competition.

Portland-area schools continue shifts to remote learning

Content warning: mentions of suicide

As of yesterday, just over 10% of students in Portland-area schools are learning remotely, including in Portland Public Schools, the David Douglas School District, the Tigard-Tualatin School District, and the entirety of the Parkrose School District. Portland Public Schools have already announced that they’ll allow sporting events to continue, as well as allow in-person extra-curricular activities. Multiple gubernatorial candidates have weighed in on school closures, with most arguing strongly in favor of in-person learning. Several suggested adding testing capacity at individual schools, despite schools already lacking supplies and staff to manage the current mandated levels of testing.

Those arguments, however, ignore a variety of concerns. The most pressing is a question of staffing: PPS needed nearly 400 substitute teachers yesterday and could only find around 230. They also needed substitutes for other staff, but couldn’t even fill 20% of those needs. While it’s easy to assume these needs will drop after the current surge peaks, that’s just not the reality: there’s no way to predict how many staff members will return after bouts with COVID-19. Between death, disability, and burn out, school staffing issues are only going to increase at this point. The response so far has focused on asking already overwhelmed teachers to take on more work and increasing the substitute pool, with moves like waiving normal requirements for substitute teachers. Relying on unqualified substitute teachers, however, is unlikely to improve educational outcomes for students — especially if those substitute teachers continue to turn over at similar speeds.

Balancing students’ educational needs against public health is a difficult conversation and it’s being lost in the politics around school closures. The rapid change from school boards announcing that they’ll keep schools open in the face of a predictable post-holiday surge to hastily returning some students to remote learning increases the stress around learning. That stress is just one more on top of all the others students are facing: More than 1 out of every 450 children has lost a parent or caregiver to COVID. Suicide rates among people under the age of 18 are up, with emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts for some demographics up 51% in 2021 over 2019 levels. A return to ‘normal in-person instruction’ is simply impossible for these students. Without a flexible coordinated plan that takes into account students’ and staffs’ needs along with their safety, learning loses will continue to accumulate — but school boards aren’t interested in finding the necessary compromises.

OregonLive is maintaining an online list of closures. Most schools are making arrangements for students to pick up breakfast and lunch on campus during closures.

Low unemployment ‘fraud’ in 2020

The Oregon Employment Department reported that it has identified around $24 million paid out on unemployment claims in 2020 that were later determined to be fraudulent. Sara Cromwell, the deputy director for benefits at the OED, cautions that number is not reliable, but it is significantly lower than many other states. California’s employment authorities, for instance, estimates its fraudulent claims at over $20 billion.

While relatively low incidents of fraud are good for the overwhelmed system used to provide a social safety net for Oregon workers, it’s worth noting that the state’s definition of a fraudulent claim may not match workers’ definitions. The OED only paid out about $3 million on unemployment claims later proved to be cases of identity theft. Less than $1 million went to ‘multi-claimant schemes’ where multiple people worked together to defraud the agency. The rest of the fraudulent claims include situations where information provided by claimants, employers, or other state agencies reported erroneous information (either unintentionally or intentionally), as well as errors by the OED. While that can include intentional acts of fraud, it can also include people who turned down job offers — even if that job offer is for less money than applicants expect or if working conditions are unsafe. Employers can easily report applicants who refuse job offers to the OED, including as a form of retaliation.

By Thursday Bram

Thursday Bram founded PDX.Vote after making numerous zines, newsletters, and other media about politics in Portland, Oregon. Thursday has also written for publications ranging from Autostraddle.com to Entrepreneur Magazine. You can find more of Thursday's work at ThursdayBram.com.