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Colorado teachers union seeks remote start to school

An elementary school hallway with jackets on hooks and lunch bags on shelves, with two adults in the distance. Banners, one saying “Respect,” hang from the ceiling between lights.
Bradley International School in Denver is pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2020.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Leaders from Colorado’s largest teachers union pushed for schools to start remotely this fall and said state reopening guidance released Monday relies too much on local control and is out of touch with reality.

The comments came during an online press conference Tuesday in which officials announced results from a recent survey of nearly 10,000 educators — including that more than half want to start the school year remotely and 78% said they’d join colleagues in refusing to return to work unless districts meet conditions meant to give them a voice in reopening decisions and provide health protections.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the 39,000-member Colorado Education Association, said starting remotely will give educators more time to plan for safe in-person learning and answer outstanding questions about how to maintain consistent cohorts of students and staff throughout the school day.

The press conference came as many school districts rush to finalize reopening plans amid a statewide increase in coronavirus cases. And while parent opinions about in-person instruction are mixed, many worry that remote learning is inadequate or inaccessible, and wonder how they’ll work if school buildings stay closed.

On Monday, state leaders released school reopening guidelines that allow normal class sizes in elementary schools and leave many decisions up to local districts. But at Tuesday’s press conference, a handful of educators voiced concern that starting the year with in-person instruction is too risky and should be delayed.

Ernest Garibay, a high school teacher from the Jeffco district, worried about the stale air in his windowless classroom, the school’s overworked custodial staff, and the fact that he has an underlying medical condition that puts him at higher risk if he contracts the coronavirus. He also said many of his teenage students work service industry jobs that increase their chance of being exposed to the virus and inadvertently bringing it to school.

Garibay said of the new state guidance, “I got the feeling they were very out of touch with the day-to-day realities in the classroom.”

John Robinson, a high school teacher in the Fort Collins-based Poudre district, said keeping students and staff in cohorts — consistent groups that stay together through the school day — is a “wonderful idea in theory” but impossible in practice given recent funding cuts that prevent hiring additional staff.

Results from the union’s survey show that 53% of nearly 10,000 educators want to start the school year remotely and 8% want to start fully in person. Colorado had about 56,000 teachers in the 2019-20 school year, according to state data.

Baca-Oehlert said that because Colorado is a local control state, “Currently, we have 178 different plans for reopening schools,” referring to the number of school districts in the state.

The state’s guidance should have included more clear and specific requirements for reopening schools, she said.

Asked whether K-12 schools could learn useful lessons from preschool and child care providers, some of whom have been back in their classrooms for months, Baca-Oehlert said it’s possible, but also cited the larger size and scale of K-12 schools.

She also said businesses must bear some responsibility for helping their employees find child care so they can return to work.

“Our public schools are not a daycare system,” she said.

The teachers union Tuesday delivered a petition signed by more than 13,000 members to state leaders outlining four conditions for safely reopening schools, including that teachers are included in decision-making, the process is transparent, safety precautions are put in place, and equity is considered.

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