Teachers unions call for a new COVID-19 dial to be created to determine when schools should open or close

Posted at 7:47 PM, Nov 19, 2020

DENVER — Teachers unions from across Colorado came together Thursday to call for school districts to come up with clear metrics for determining when class should be held in-person and when it should go remote.

The Colorado Education Association (CEA) along with representatives from Denver, Jefferson County, Pueblo, Poudre and other school districts, hosted a news conference asking for a clear threshold parents and staff can understand.

“We have experienced a lack of clear, consistent and transparent metrics to guide decision-making,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the CEA.

Another dial

The group called for a dial similar to the one the state released for the COVID-19 restriction levels. They would like the dial to use one metric that is easy to navigate, using the district’s overall COVID-19 percent positivity rate to determine when schools should open and close.

The unions said the opening and closing of schools has caused animosity from some parents who are not given a clear understanding of the decision-making process and this could change that.

“For many of our superintendents and school board members, it’s reached a level where they are getting threatening emails and some to the level of death threats,” Baca-Oehlert said. “If we use this COVID-19 dial for schools, the decision to transition instruction won’t make the superintendent or the school board the villain.”

The unions had suggested that anything above a 5% positivity rate would mean that instruction is fully remote. At 3% positivity, schools would be open but remote learning would be available for students who opt in.

However, the unions said these numbers were just examples of thresholds they would like to see and would leave it up to districts to determine whether those numbers need to change.

The unions are asking school districts to come up with and implement the threshold by Jan. 4.

Mixed messages

The news conference comes two days after Governor Jared Polis called for elementary schools to reopen despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state.

“We want to make sure that we emphasize the need for K-5 especially to return to in-person instruction. We feel that based on the data, for many families and for many kids, that is the safest place they can be with the safety parameters that we have at school,” Polis said. “We encourage that in-person service so that our children’s future is not yet another casualty in this pandemic.”

The governor encouraged in-person learning for elementary schools, a hybrid model for middle schools and either hybrid or remote learning for high schools and committed the state to helping districts find solutions.

Making it work

At Traylor Academy in Denver, physical education teacher Julie Nelson has gotten used to being flexible with learning.

“It can change in a heartbeat and that’s the flexibility of being a teacher. That’s what we do," Nelson said. "So, if we’re not flexible, we’re not meeting the needs of our community.”

Denver Public Schools is getting ready to transition back to being fully remote learning after Thanksgiving, which can be difficult for classes like Nelson’s.

“We do exercise videos for our kids for online and in-person and making sure that they’re up,” Nelson said.

Overall, she says parents have been very understanding and supportive of the changes, but that more communication could always be beneficial, including the dial.

“I am a PE teacher. We want to be in person and love teaching as much as we can but we also want to be safe,” Nelson said. “It’s not forever, but it’s for now.”

Safety, but also staffing

For John Robinson, who has been a civics teacher at Rocky Mountain High School for 20 years and who serves as the president of Poudre Education association, this year has been unstable.

“Honestly our educators right now, we’re working probably four times the amount of work that they did just a year ago,” Robinson said.

He’s concerned about the safety of staff and students and believes the dial could help offer some peace of mind and transparency.

“We’re very concerned for everybody's safety within our community. We want to do our part to make sure that we’re helping mitigate this disease as best as we can,” Robinson said.

He had fielded hundreds of phone calls from parents and teachers asking about what next week or next month holds for the district.

However, Robinson says the dial is about more than safety, it’s also about staffing, with so many people having to quarantine when students or staff come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.

“When we look at quarantine rates, when we look at absentee rates, we are stretched to the maximum right now,” Robinson said.

He believes the positivity rate could serve as an indicator for both the safety of reopening schools but also the staffing to be able to accommodate the needs of students.

“What we’re looking to provide is that stability, that predictability as rates climb or drop,” he said.

Ultimately though, with local control, it will be up to each school district to decide whether they would like to add a threshold or metric to determine whether schools should open or close and what that metric should be.