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“At a breaking point”: Colorado schools plead for help as stress of pandemic teaching piles up

The start of school has been chaotic for districts amid the coronavirus crisis. Educators fear that without more support, students will be left behind.

Staffer Myrna Zillalba, left, helps Dennys Quezada as he works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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Barely a month into the school year, many Colorado teachers are at a breaking point as they try to balance new responsibilities like temperature checks, juggle classes of students both in person and online and manage dozens of kids over a screen. 

The stress levels have gotten so high for some teachers that they’ve called a suicide hotline.

School districts need help, and they’re calling on the state to extend it. 

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Colorado superintendents, educators and education advocates described an exhausting start to the school year in a joint hearing Wednesday before the Colorado legislature’s education committees. Without more state and federal support, they said, districts run the risk of students falling further behind in an education system many argue has long been underfunded.

“Our educators are at a breaking point, and our system is at a breaking point,” Dave Lockley, president of the District Twelve Educators Association, told legislators. “We need more support. We need more support from the state. We need more support from the federal government. Our district has done everything possible, everything within their power. They have bent over backwards. They have done everything they can, but we have run out of cards. We have run out of tricks. We have nothing left, and our students don’t have until next year. They don’t have until next week. They need help from the federal government, from the state government today.”

Committee members listened as Lockley and other speakers from schools and organizations painted a turbulent picture of the fall semester so far. Some became emotional while recounting the struggles they and their colleagues have fought to overcome.

Read more education stories from The Colorado Sun.

It’s not all bad news. There have been bright spots during school days amid the pandemic, including time for more one-on-one interactions between teachers and kids in virtual settings and new opportunities for some support staff to increase their hours and shift to working directly with students.

But the number of challenges overshadow those successes. 

There are kids struggling to transition between modes of learning as districts change course in response to the way the virus affects their communities. There are young elementary school students suffering significant learning losses after being out of the classroom for several months. There’s the rural superintendent who has had to jump into the bus driver’s seat to transport kids and the charter school leader who moonlights as a custodial worker. And there are districts that can’t locate a share of their students and are still trying to reach them.

An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes noted that some districts have lost touch with a significant number of students. The Colorado Department of Education is grappling with what data is needed at the state level to best support students and how to collect data most effectively and efficiently, Anthes said.

Traditionally, the state hasn’t measured student engagement or learning formats, but has looked to districts to keep track of that information. Anthes is questioning what role the state should play in gathering that district data and how it can make any data it collects “actionable.”

Anthes pointed to an effort by Gov. Jared Polis’ office to help districts with re-engaging students by partnering with Americorps, whose members can assist in finding students and connecting them back to school.

Across Colorado, most districts are offering an in-person learning option, Anthes said. The state has reviewed information for about 173 of Colorado’s 185 districts and Boards of Cooperative Educational Services — representing about 98% of students — and about 73% have rolled out an in-person school option. Many are small and rural districts that “have been able to be a bit nimble and flexible and get back into in-person learning,” Anthes said.

CDE estimates that about 37% of Colorado students have access to in-person learning, as of about a week ago, Anthes said. Plans are changing rapidly, with some districts working on accelerating their plans to return to the classroom or ensuring their younger students or more at-risk students can resume classes in person soon.

In districts with multiple options, elementary school students are more likely to be in person than middle schoolers and high schoolers, following health data showing that younger students are less likely to transmit the coronavirus and have lower rates of the disease.

In some districts, leaders have estimated that as many as 25% of families have opted for remote learning even if an in-person or a hybrid option is available, Anthes said.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

The quality of learning across districts varies, she said. Districts that didn’t have a foundation in remote learning and those that lacked a robust curriculum for remote learning or adequate access to devices and an internet connection are especially challenged.

“There is a continuum for sure,” Anthes said.

State efforts to improve technology access throughout Colorado — including a $2 million investment of federal coronavirus relief funds in school districts trying to ensure all their students can get online — have taken a chunk out of the digital divide, she said. But they’re not solving the problem.

What keeps educators awake at night

Noticeably absent from Wednesday’s hearing was input from students and parents. Only one group, the Colorado Parent Teacher Association, whose 20,000 members mostly consist of parents of children in public schools, spoke on their behalf.

A few lawmakers, including Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, and Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, noted the lack of student and parent voices.

Lundeen said he is concerned to a “fairly extreme level” that lawmakers were not also hearing from those they seek to serve. 

Geitner appreciated input from the Colorado PTA but said he estimates it represents 2% of parents in Colorado, so it didn’t reflect a full perspective of parents in Wednesday’s hearing.

Others who joined the conversation, like Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert, offered insight through the lens of a parent as well as an educator. Baca-Oehlert, also a school counselor, sounded an alarm on how much educators’ mental health is suffering.

“Our educators are feeling tremendous stress and pressure, and my best hope is that we can remember that our educators too deserve the respect and attention from all of us to ensure that their mental health and wellbeing as they work to serve the students of Colorado is top of mind,” Baca-Oehlert said. She has referred four teachers to a suicide hotline this year.

Kathy Dorman, a high school science teacher in Douglas County, feels lucky to be able to teach safely from her home, even as she oversees 44 students with all their courses — not just science.

She worries about her colleagues, who are very stressed. Those conducting hybrid teaching are essentially taking on two jobs, not one, Dorman said, and they also worry about their health and wellbeing.

“I’ve had close friends tell me that they’re at the breaking point,” Dorman said. “It’s September. We don’t get to the breaking point as teachers in September. And the system depends on the staff and on the teachers because they have to be healthy for the kids and they have to be able to do this work.”

In Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Lockley, the union president, has been flooded with concerns from teachers trying to make the right decision about whether they’ll step back into the classroom once the district pivots to in-person learning.

“These fears every single day are going to be a challenge and a struggle because instead of focusing on what the students need and interacting with those students, there’s going to be this momentary hesitation of, ‘Am I too close to this student? Am I putting this student or myself at risk?’” Lockley said.

THORNTON, CO – AUGUST 21: Parents and students pick up backpacks filled with school supplies at the central administration offices of Adams 12 school district in Thornton, August 21, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lockley also worries about the consequences that will trickle down to students, primarily the reality of learning gaps and students not getting what they need for their education.

“At the end of the day, there is going to be learning gaps, and that is the biggest shame and the biggest heartbreak I have,” he said. “It’s actually what keeps me up at night.”

Other school leaders lie awake at night with heavy budget concerns, facing questions about how they’ll keep affording resources in the new year, when some stimulus dollars will no longer be available.

Colorado received about $121 million in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund within the Education Stabilization Fund under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer of CDE. The first $109 million of that was distributed to districts based on their Title I allocation methodology and must be spent on coronavirus-related expenses by the end of September 2022.

Another $510 million in coronavirus relief funds were given to districts and expires much sooner — at the end of this year. They must also cover components of districts’ responses to COVID-19, Okes said.

Districts have invested those dollars in everything from staff to personal protective equipment to hand sanitizer. Those dollars have helped cushion districts, but the resources they’ve helped districts access won’t just disappear after December.

“While the CARES Act dollars provided a buffer, a much-needed buffer in a desperate time, we are not seeing our way out of that desperate time by a date on the calendar, by Dec. 30,” Baca-Oehlert said. “So we must come together collectively to find solutions to ensure that a child, no matter their ZIP code, no matter where they live in Colorado or attend our public schools, that they have access to a high-quality public education system that gives them the resources and supports that they need.”

The needs are particularly acute in small rural districts, where cuts hit particularly hard since they don’t have economies of scale, said Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, which represents 146 rural Colorado districts.

One rural superintendent recently told Murphy, “we’re just going to cut ourselves right out of business.”

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