By PATTY NIEBERG
Associated Press/Report for America
DENVER (AP) — 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 also is calling for individual school districts to establish their own protocols, publicly release the data used in reopening 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, and a day before the St. Vrain Valley school board is slated to meet with Boulder County Public Health officials to discuss plans for the coming school year.
That state 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.
St. Vrain Valley School District outlined its tentative plan for the coming school year in a June 30 email to parents, with a pledge to return all students to full time, in-person learning as soon as possible. The schedule calls for a “hybrid” model for most of the upper classes to reduce unhealthy crowding in hallways and classrooms.
The school board will meet with experts from Boulder County Public Health Wednesday as the district continues to finalize its plan for the coming year, Superintendent Don Haddad announced in an email sent to parents last week.
The meeting at 6 p.m., which will be livestreamed through Longmont Public Media, is aimed at making needed updates to that plan, Haddad stated in his email last week. He said a “detailed community letter to all families, teachers, and staff” regarding schedules and models related to in-person learning, hybrid learning, and fully online/remote learning options will be emailed at the end of this week.
Earlier this month, Haddad said face masks for students will not be optional in most cases.
"I want to make this point very clear, that masks will be worn by students all through pre-kindergarten through 12th grade,“ he said during a video session with the St. Vrain school board on July 8.
Classes are to resume in August in Colorado's 178 public school districts. The start date for St. Vrain is listed as Aug. 18 on the district website.
Both Baca-Oehlert and John Robinson, vice president of the Poudre Education Association union, in Tuesday’s news conference suggested delaying the start of classes 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.
— Longmont Leader staff contributed to this report.
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.