By Patty Nieberg, The Associated Press
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.
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.
“I know that teachers are anxious,” said Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner said during a call with reporters on Monday. “Ultimately, a lot of this comes down to individual decisions.”
Anthes acknowledged that she’s concerned about teacher shortages if educators are fearful of returning to their classrooms.
Gov. Jared Polis has said that he doesn’t want to sacrifice the education of Colorado’s children because of the pandemic. He said it’s up to parents to make the decision about whether or not they feel comfortable sending their kids to school for in-person learning.
“At the end of the day this, like a lot of things in life, is a very individualized decision,” Polis said at a news conference on Tuesday.
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 Polis and Anthes with its concerns.
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.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.