PUEBLO — When Jamie Martinez’s nose started to run and her sinuses became stuffy earlier this month, she suspected her allergies were flaring up like they typically do this time of year.
But the mild signs of allergies soon morphed into symptoms of a different kind. A sinus headache tugged at her throughout the first week of November, and by the end of that week, she was dragging with fatigue. After Martinez, a second grade teacher at Sunset Park Elementary School in Pueblo, began to hear that some of her colleagues had tested positive for COVID-19, she decided to get tested herself.
The single mother of two contracted the virus.
She’s one of 12 people from Sunset Park Elementary School who tested positive for coronavirus this fall — including six staff and six students — though the cases have not constituted an outbreak under the definition used by the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. The school has about 400 students.
All students in Pueblo School District 60 are learning from home for the rest of the semester, but the district says that as long as teachers are healthy, they must work from their school buildings. District leaders want teachers in classrooms, they say, because they can access necessary resources, like high-speed internet, and give their students a virtual window into a familiar learning environment.
Teachers, however, are worried that by stepping back into their school they’re putting their own health — and possibly the health of their family members — on the line. It’s the kind of fear that has been top of mind for educators across the state during the pandemic. As eager as many are to connect with their students face to face, they also realize that that could place them in the direct path of transmission.
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Schools so far have not been blamed for accelerating the spread of the virus, but as cases surge in Pueblo, teachers wonder how much of a risk they’re taking by staying in the classroom.
“I don’t feel safe in the building, working there,” Martinez said. “I don’t feel safe bringing my kids in if I have to go back. I don’t understand why I can’t teach from home. We did teach from home the first week of our quarantine starting Nov. 2. We did an awesome job doing our thing from the safety of our homes, and now many of my colleagues are asked to go back and teach from their classrooms, and with the spiking amount of positive cases in the community, it’s very concerning for a lot of us.”
Both teachers and the Pueblo Education Association realize that with students at home and schools close to empty, chances of spreading the disease in school buildings are minimal. But some teachers have family members whose health puts them at high risk and others have children who are learning remotely and who they don’t want to bring to work where they could be exposed to the virus, said Mike Maes, president of the Pueblo Education Association.
“Teachers are just concerned about being in the building around other people,” Maes said.
And educators simply want the choice to work from school or from home.
“What’s the difference between working at home at my kitchen table or working at school at a desk?” Martinez asked. “Kids are getting the same quality education from either place.”
Other districts in Colorado, including Boulder Valley School District and Pueblo County School District 70 — which neighbors Pueblo School District 60 — are giving teachers the option of teaching from their classrooms or from their own homes as their students take courses remotely.
Martinez joined a group of teachers, staff, parents and representatives from the Pueblo Education Association on a Sunday evening Zoom meeting streamed on Facebook to make their concerns public and urge the community to press the district for a policy change.
Kristen Taylor’s family opted for online education for her fifth-grade son this fall to spare him from having to shuffle between different modes of learning. But, with cases rising at Sunset Park Elementary School and interfering with teachers’ instruction, her family has lost that consistency.
“Putting staff in a building that’s unsafe puts them at risk, which then disrupts the consistency that my family chose for my son’s learning opportunities,” Taylor said.
Katie Brown, a counselor at Sunset Park, said that from Oct. 23 to Nov. 3, six staff members from the school got sick. She feels let down by the district, which she said failed to follow COVID-19 protocols.
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The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:
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“The district has a responsibility to us to keep us safe in schools,” Brown said. “Our students, their families, our coworkers, our whole community is counting on this, and I feel like they made a promise to all of us that they would follow the rules and that they would contact trace and that they would quarantine people who have been in close contact.”
Brown has been particularly worried about her son’s Sunset Park kindergarten teacher. He got so sick with COVID-19 that he ended up in intensive care and is still recovering at home. His time away from students, she said, has left a void.
“This is an incredible loss for my son,” Brown said. “I can only imagine the hole that his absence left for all of his students in his class family.”
Brown approaches her job with a lot of fear these days — fear that protocols are being ignored and the devastating consequences that could have on the health of school staff members. She has continued to tell her students how lucky she is to have her job, but her optimism is fading.
“I worry that enthusiasm and that energy and that love of the work is compromised by the situation we’re being put in right now,” she said.
On Sunday night, Brown said she found herself facing “a terrible choice — the one that places the needs of my students at odds with my own personal safety and the health and safety of my family,” she said.
“So I have to decide, do I take my personal days and miss that time and those connections with my students, knowing that I may soon need those days if I get sick,” Brown said. “The kids lose when we’re put in this position.”
Karen Ortiz, a third grade teacher and a longtime educator in the district, is so frustrated that she is considering retiring and has contacted the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association to learn more.
“My health and well-being are extremely important,” Ortiz, 56, said, noting that she has elderly relatives she now is not able to see.
Has Sunset Park Elementary School experienced an outbreak?
Some educators from Pueblo School District 60 have raised additional concerns that district leaders don’t trust teachers as professionals who can excel from home.
But in a statement, the district maintained that it views teachers as “true professionals who are dedicated to serving our students.”
“We trust them fully and value them and that’s why we want to support them with the resources they need to conduct their job fully,” the statement read. “We believe that we can support them best when they are working from within the classroom.”
And although the staff insists the Sunset Park has experienced an outbreak, what happened at their school has not been classified that way by the district or the county health department.
Under Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines, an outbreak occurs when the virus is transmitted between at least two unrelated households within a 14-day period. To classify multiple cases as an outbreak, PDPHE must verify that cases are linked and then the department assesses the number of cases and how the virus is moving, said Sarah Joseph, a spokeswoman for the county health department.
Sunset Park’s cases may not have not been definitively linked to one another or perhaps the current cases were contracted outside the school, Joseph said.
Pueblo 60 spokesman Dalton Sprouse said two of the cases were reported in September but did not interfere with the school’s operations. Another four cases — three from one household — forced the school to shut down on Oct. 30. Six other cases were reported from Nov. 3 to Nov. 12, including two unrelated cases that were reported in one day.
Separately, the district is monitoring an outbreak that erupted within the volleyball team at Centennial High School. While the quarantine window for the team has ended, the outbreak is not considered resolved until 28 days have passed without more positive cases related to the outbreak.
Pueblo 60 reports all coronavirus cases to the state and local health department, according to a district statement. In some instances, the district is informed of cases from its staff members before names are reported by the state and in other circumstances, the health department will alert the district of a positive case. After names are confirmed, a response team will start contact tracing.
PDPHE created a school response team in August that includes public health nurses, environmental health specialists, a communication specialist and an epidemiologist, Joseph said. The department assigned each school district, private school and charter school a public health nurse who can immediately address COVID-19 concerns and summon the entire school response team if needed.
“The schools have been very good partners in working to identify and then minimize any spread of COVID-19,” Joseph said.
But some Sunset Park teachers are eyeing their neighbor, Pueblo 70, wondering why their own administrators can’t follow that district’s lead. Earlier in the semester, the county district directed teachers to return to their classrooms to instruct students in remote courses, unless they had a legitimate health concern requiring them to stay home. Now, as cases escalate, they’re giving teachers the option of instructing from schools or from home.
Pueblo 70 educators are its “frontline workers,” and the district wants to protect them at a time the pandemic is overwhelming the community, public information officer Todd Seip said.
“I think there’s some concern out there that we didn’t have before,” he said.
That concern weighs heavily on Brown, Sunset Park Elementary School’s school counselor, who said staff don’t know who in her building might be asymptomatic or who is on the verge of developing symptoms. That’s why some teachers are wary of continuing to conduct lessons from classrooms.
“Any additional risk seems unnecessary,” Brown said, “especially when it comes to educators’ lives.”