APS school board, teachers challenge Aug. 18 reopening plans

Hinkley High School graduation ceremony held on July 21, 2020, at Aurora Public Schools Stadium. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | Aurora Public Schools teachers and school board members expressed skepticism Tuesday night with the district’s plans to reopen schools next month, while calling for more information and acknowledging trade-offs that have long plagued school planners facing impossibilities. 

Teachers who lead the Aurora Education Association teachers union presented survey results at a special meeting of the school board that suggest fear is widespread among school staff who may be called to work full days in schools during a historic pandemic.

“We’re talking about lives: children’s lives, staff lives, human lives,” said school board member Stephanie Mason. “And for me, I need more (information.)”

The school board planned another special meeting Friday to dive deep into how exactly life will look for teachers and students in the some 40,000-student school district come Aug. 18, when most students are currently slated to go back to school — if health experts allow it.

On Friday, the board might also consider planning to start the school year with all or some students at home if the region’s COVID-19 incidence rate doesn’t improve in time. 

AEA leadership said more than 1,000 teachers and school staff responded to the union’s survey asking for reactions to APS’ current plan to return to school. Of those teachers, about 75% said they were moderately concerned or had major concerns about returning to school and did not feel safe at all. 

Statewide, the district’s largest teacher union, the Colorado Education Association, reported similar results from a teacher survey, according to a July 21 Chalkbeat story. Among 10,000 teachers surveyed, more than half want schools to being the school year remotely, citing health and safety concerns for staff and students alike.

Teachers including Regan Lefferts, who teaches math at Mrachek Middle School, said the plans would almost certainly lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases and put students at risk. Lefferts told the Sentinel she is battling cancer and taking medication that has rendered her immunocompromised.

She hopes to opt out of in-person teaching, but she’s worried about her colleagues and children, who are students in the Cherry Creek School District. She also said APS’ opt-out process is far from fleshed-out, just weeks from the school start date. 

“My oncologist just laughed at me when I told him this,” Lefferts said of the district’s reopening plans. She said her doctor told her, “‘That is not really safe for anybody, let alone a a cancer patient.’” 

The district is currently planning to have students at all grades got to school every weekday unless a “worst case scenario” sends kids back home to learn remotely, Superintendent Rico Munn told the board. 

Following advice from the Colorado Department of Education and health authorities, students would be grouped into “cohorts” and separated from each other to reduce viral spread and expedite contact tracing. 

Munn said Tuesday those cohort sizes will be capped at 30 students, but they will likely be smaller. 

Elementary and middle school students will have to stay in their classrooms for the entire school day, — up to seven hours for middle school and more than six hours for elementary school, Munn said — including during lunch. 

In high schools, the student body will be halved and the school day separated into morning and afternoon schedules. And, at all levels, students will have to wear masks, and teachers will have to maintain space between them and students in an attempt to reduce exposure. 

And if a child in one cohort tests positive for the new coronavirus, the entire cohort would land back at home to learn remotely for 14 days. 

Of course, it’s not certain that schools will open on schedule. The Tri-County Health Department could order schools to stay closed based upon worsening pandemic conditions. APS has also planned a hybrid school model — with some students at home and some at school — that could be deployed during community outbreaks. 

Either way, teachers can apply to teach remotely during the school year. Munn said a district survey of school personnel found about 6 percent of staff planned to do so. 

And families will be able to pull their students from in-person learning in favor of learning remotely once again, or put them back into school. Munn said the district expects 15% to 25% of kids to choose remote learning. 

The picture is also colored by a rising trend in local COVID-19 cases making Munn “very concerned.” 

Munn noted Tri-County Health data indicating an incidence rate of more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents in Adams and Arapahoe counties during the last 14 days. He said Tri-County characterizes those figures as “high” incidences of COVID-19 in the counties covering almost all of Aurora.

But Munn said there’s ample time for the trends to improve, possibly helped by Gov. Jared Polis’ recent mandate that all Coloradans wear masks in public spaces. 

Pointing to the gritty picture of the pandemic with less than a month before the school year, school board members Marques Ivey, Vicki Reinhard and Stephanie Mason in particular grilled Munn about the details of the reopening plans. 

Echoing teachers, the board members found themselves asking an avalanche of questions about minutiae involved in the plans: What happens if students are already sick before the school year starts, but they don’t know it? How will kids stay focused, let alone learn, while sitting in the same classroom for seven hours? How will teachers do their jobs while supposedly social distancing in rooms that still house scores of kids? And how will special education staff change students’ diapers or replace medical equipment? 

“It seems to me that we still have some holes that may be major,” Ivey told Munn. 

Munn said there is no ideal solution to such a complicated problem.

“What I can tell you is, there is no model where we don’t have those questions,” Munn responded, referring to the district’s blueprints for online teaching, in-person learning or a combination of the two. 

On the other hand, board member Nichelle Ortiz argued that keeping students at home puts children at risk, too, because parents will have to find childcare for their kids.

Bryan Lindstrom, who teaches at Hinkley High School, echoed that point last week.

“We don’t have an economic system set up to protect our working class people,” he told the Sentinel. 

That’s one of many arguments against keeping kids at home, the Sentinel reported in May.

In any event, Lindstrom said that teachers need more clarity about how exactly schooling is going to work in August and beyond.

“To have no real clue what this looks like is nerve-wracking. And I’m not a very type-A person,” he said. 

Still, Munn and AEA union President Bruce Wilcox affirmed that the district does have answers to many questions. The school board will talk through a growing laundry list of concerns with district officials Friday. 

The school board did nail down some policy changes for the school year Tuesday.

Members unanimously agreed to ease graduation requirements for students and change an attendance policy to account for students learning at home during the pandemic.