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Colorado teachers union: Pay everyone through school year, negotiate remote learning, halt evictions

Jose Garcia cleans a wall at Bruce Randolph School in Denver on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Jose Garcia cleans a wall at Bruce Randolph School in Denver on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Colorado’s largest teachers union is calling on Gov. Jared Polis to provide clearer guidance to school districts and provide more economic protections for both school employees and low-income families.

The Colorado Education Association delivered a petition Wednesday signed by more than 3,000 members that calls on Polis to:

  • Direct superintendents to work with local teachers unions to agree on remote learning practices and policies
  • Direct districts to reimburse teachers for personal expenses they incurred preparing for remote learning
  • Mandate that school districts pay all employees, including support staff, for the entire school year
  • Demand that immigration enforcement officers stop making arrests and release nonviolent detainees
  • Halt rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis
  • Expand unemployment benefits significantly and expedite access.

The requests reflect the concerns educators have about their own roles as 900,000 students transition to remote learning and school districts prepare for potential budget cuts, as well as concerns for the welfare of their students and their families. When the Colorado Education Association recently surveyed its members about their concerns, the top three issues were supporting student learning in an extended school closure, cited by 92% of respondents, halting evictions during the epidemic, and expanding access to free, healthy food, both cited by 86% of respondents.

Canceling educator evaluations, another issue on which the union has asked Polis to take a stronger stance, ranked much lower, though 62% of respondents still said they supported such a move.

The calls for the state to do more for low-income families — even in areas like housing that aren’t directly connected to schooling — align with some recent efforts from other teachers unions across the country.

The union in Los Angeles has been at the forefront, bringing issues like immigration help for students into contract negotiations. Chicago’s teachers union has followed, advocating for affordable housing at one point in its last bargaining push.

Both unions have continued that messaging as the pandemic unfolded. The Chicago union has called on the school district to immediately house homeless students with some of the money allocated to respond to coronavirus. In Los Angeles, the union has asked officials to suspend evictions, rent payments, and mortgage payments, as well as to provide shelter for homeless students and sick pay for all workers in the county.

“I can put my teacher cap on and look at my standards, but is that really what I need to be thinking about right now?” asked Kelly Osuna, a high school Spanish teacher from the suburban Cherry Creek district, at a virtual press conference held by the union. “I worry so much about the social-emotional aspects that kids are struggling with.”

Osuna described one student who is supporting her entire family at a fast food job and worried about taking coronavirus home with her. The immigrant mother of another student was preparing to take the citizenship test and was laid off from two jobs. She’s scared that applying for unemployment will affect her status. Many recently arrived “newcomer” students are among those who haven’t logged onto online learning, she said.

Many educators and advocates in Colorado and nationally are wrestling with how to balance academics with emotional and material support for students, as inequities in access to remote learning are expected to widen already significant gaps in everything from graduation rates to third-grade literacy.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert noted that many students are effectively missing two months of school.

“We do know the greatest learning and connection occurs in the school building, so we ask that everyone do what they need to do so we can get back to the classroom,” she said, expressing support for Polis’ stay-at-home order and statewide school closures through at least April 30.

Some of the issues raised in the petition are not a problem for now but could be if districts face tough budget decisions. Baca-Oehlert said that most districts in Colorado are paying all of their employees, whether they have district work to do or not, but members fear that won’t continue to be the case.

Carlos Meikel, an elementary art teacher in the Poudre district in northern Colorado, said he spent $200 on equipment to gear up for remote learning. He hasn’t asked for reimbursement yet — he doesn’t feel like now is a good time — but he doesn’t think teachers should have to be digging into their own pockets to fund a statewide priority.

Colorado has traditionally favored local control for school districts, and state education officials have provided significant flexibility for districts in how they respond to closures and remote learning. Baca-Oehlert said that what works in normal times isn’t necessarily working now.

“Given that we’re in a crisis, we’re calling on the governor to have some decisive leadership on some issues that can create some calm,” she said. “There are certain things that, if they were consistent across the state, it would ease the anxiety, the stress, the fear, as well as the negative impacts.”

The governor’s office said he understands many of the concerns raised by educators, but a spokesman did not indicate if he would take any formal action.

“The governor knows that educators across the state are one of the linchpins of Colorado’s COVID-19 response,” spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email. “Every day — even more than usual — educators are being asked to go above and beyond for their students, whether that is teaching a virtual lesson, helping a family locate their nearest emergency meal location, or just reaching out to a student to let them know they are thinking about them.

“Our administration has strongly encouraged school districts to continue paying educators throughout this crisis to support them in this critical work and is focused on doing everything we can to expand access to key services to support families during this time.”

Polis previously has urged landlords not to initiate eviction proceedings and called on federal immigration authorities to release people held for civil, not criminal, violations, but he also said he has limited authority in those areas.

National editor Sarah Darville and reporter Kalyn Belsha contributed to this report.

Read the letter to Gov. Polis below.

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