Face shields, gloves and masks for teachers. Physically distanced classrooms. In-school instruction two days a week. Hand-washing stations, limited bus transportation, sanitizing high-touch surfaces, restricted visitors. Priority enrollment in child care for kids of educators. A delayed start to the school year.
Those are but some of the guidelines laid out on July 21 by Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) officials in their plan to reopen school Aug. 24. The plan has yet to be approved by the school board.
In the St. Vrain Valley School District (SVVSD), a different plan has emerged: full-time, in-person instruction is slated to return for students from preschool to sixth grade, and ninth graders, with a hybrid online/in-person model for those in seventh to eighth and 10-12 grades.
The disparity exists because statewide guidance, released this week, allows school districts to determine their own reopening plans, so long as they meet a few benchmarks on class sizes and social distancing.
But the leeway given to districts to determine their own plans has also drawn the concern of the state’s teachers. In a petition signed by 13,457 Colorado educators sent to Jared Polis, the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state teachers’ union, laid out a list of prerequisites for returning to school: that employee voices and safety must drive decision-making; that districts must provide adequate safety equipment; that the reopening process is transparent; and that equity for students, staff and families is ensured.
“Until these four demands can be met, we should not have in-person learning,” said CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert in a news conference with union members on July 21. “We have seen already Denver Public Schools has decided to start schooling in a remote learning environment because they feel conditions can’t be met.”
BVSD Superintendent Rob Anderson laid out the district’s reopening plan at a special, virtual board meeting on July 21. The hope is to start school in “phase three” of five, with the aforementioned safety protocols school officials developed in concert with local and state health officials over “hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of hours” of planning, Anderson said. He cautioned, however, that a surge in cases or other COVID-19-related developments could push the district back into a more restrictive reopening scenario. And, the administration has to win approval of the school board, and ultimately its teachers.
Anderson was noncommittal when asked by a board member if Boulder Valley Education Association (BVEA), the local chapter of CEA, is on-board with the reopening.
“Our commitment is to try to get there. I don’t think we want to be in the position where the majority of our staff don’t feel comfortable,” he said. “I think there is a lot of justified fear. … I am committed to working with BVEA and all our employees to try to understand, based on the plan today, what else do we need to do, and for those that are at high risk, how do we get those folks exemptions?”
So far, 90 BVSD teachers have been given exemptions for in-class instruction, with 100 more applications filed. Anderson said there may be a “tipping point” where too many teachers in high-risk health categories file exemptions, limiting the ability to offer in-person instruction and implement this phase of the school reopening. Part of the equation, too, is how many students sign up for online learning through the Boulder Universal program, which might lessen the number of teachers needed for in-person instruction in the short-term.
But CEA members noted that the state already has a shortage of educators (and funding) to begin with, and with state guidance to group students into small cohorts in order to limit the potential spread of the virus, thus increasing the number of teachers needed, there may not be enough educators to safely open schools.
“It’s an impossibility at this point when we’re looking to open buildings in two to three weeks to come up with the number of qualified, certified educators to make a cohort happen at the state level,” said John Robinson, a teacher in the Poudre School District who spoke at the CEA press conference.
Nearly 10,000 CEA members shared their concerns between July 13-17 in a survey circulated by the union. The results indicate widespread hesitation among teachers to reopen classrooms.
More than half of respondents said they want the school year to open 100% remotely, and fewer than one out of five said they believe their districts can keep them safe. Critically, nearly 80% of respondents said they would be willing to refuse to return to work over safety concerns.
Parcelling out the 1,030 BVEA responses, two-thirds of teachers would prefer to teach remotely this year, and more than 90% feel “a great deal” or “some” anxiety about returning to work this year.
Both administrators and teachers agree in-person learning produces the best outcomes, but there is disagreement about the benefits of in-person instruction after all the necessary safety protocols are put in place.
“In-person learning is much more effective and there are so many more benefits than if we go fully online even with the challenges I know we’re going to have to overcome,” Anderson said.
But for those who work with younger students or those with developmental issues, the challenges may outweigh the benefits. Lisa Larsen, a Boulder paraeducator, who works with students with special needs, said the very nature of the job would make enforcing the safety protocols a near impossibility.
“We’re right next to the student,” Larsen said at the CEA virtual event. “We can’t … practice physical distancing because by the very nature of our position, we need to be right there. We help with behaviors, we help with tracking on a page, there are some special ed students that require breaks and walking around. Right there, the physical distancing is not a possibility. Also in the special ed community, we’re working with the kids who have the most significant challenges, and they are not able to wear masks. They may not be able to let us wear masks — I have students that regularly pull the glasses off my face because they don’t like something that’s different.”
Added Justina Carter, a teacher in Pueblo, “In an elementary school we tie shoes and zip zippers. We button their buttons. We comfort students when they need it. We show them how to hold scissors. We show them how to find letters on a keyboard so they can log onto a program. There is so much contact with our little ones.”
The SVVSD school board will meet after press time on July 22 to further discuss how COVID-19 will affect its reopening plans. The BVSD board will meet again with administrators and health officials in two weeks to finalize plans.
“I still think that there is a ways to go to make sure teachers know and understand the supports that we’re providing, and we still need to continue to listen and make sure they feel safe,” Anderson said.