Colorado teachers petition governor on school reopening plan

Lara Center holds a placard during a rally around the State Capitol to call on state lawmakers to protect public schools from budget cuts. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER  | Colorado teachers may refuse to report for work unless their criteria for reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic this fall are met, the head of the state’s largest teachers union said Tuesday.

Colorado Education Association president Amie Baca-Oehlert told a news conference that union members want more of a say in how school districts implement safety protocols such as mask-wearing, restricting movement among public school students and restricting class sizes.

The union is also calling for individual school districts to establish their own protocols, publicly release the data used in re-opening decisions and provide all students with access to remote learning tools such as computers and WiFi, Baca-Oehlert said.

She presented a survey of nearly 10,000 union members that said nearly eight in 10 teachers would be “willing to join their colleagues in refusing to return to work” if those conditions aren’t met.

The survey also found that 53% of respondents prefer remote-only teaching and 8% prefer in-person-only instruction.

That sentiment echoes a recent survey by the Aurora Education Association teacher union.

At a Tuesday night meeting of the Aurora Public Schools school board, 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. 

Currently, APS and the Cherry Creek School District are planning to open schools five days a week next month.

The plans hinge on keeping students grouped by “cohorts” to reduce viral spread and expedite contact tracing. In both districts, families and teachers can decide to stay home. Officials are also adamant that the pandemic picture can quickly change, landing students and teachers back home in more fleshed-out online learning routines.

The union president spoke a day after state education and health officials released guidance for reopening public schools.

That guidance includes having schools form “cohorts” of students who stay together throughout the day to limit exposure to the coronavirus to others. It also recommends alternating schedules for in-person and remote student learning and staggered movement times on campus.

State officials did not recommend limits on the size of individual student groups.

Classes are to resume in August in Colorado’s 178 public school districts.

Both Baca-Oehlert and John Robinson, vice president of the Poudre Education Association union, suggested delaying the start of class until the state can develop more specific safety guidelines. They also noted that Colorado’s consistently underfunded public schools contend with tight budgets, teacher shortages and large class sizes that haven’t changed during the pandemic.

“All of the decisions and the plans are happening in virtual meetings because people are not comfortable being in rooms together because we’re pretty sure that’s unsafe,” said Justina Carter, a teacher of English as a second language. “We’re trying to protect ourselves while making a plan to send children into schools together.”

The union said it delivered a petition to Gov. Jared Polis and education commissioner Katy Anthes with its concerns.

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Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.