Teachers Face An Uncertain Future And Uneven Responses Between Districts. They’re Asking Gov. Polis To Help

April 8, 2020
Bruce Randolph Laptops And Meals During CoronavirusBruce Randolph Laptops And Meals During CoronavirusHart Van Denburg/CPR News
There were no students at Bruce Randolph Elementary School in Denver this morning, but cafeteria workers were busy making grab-and-go lunches to be delivered in neighborhoods by bus drivers, and laptops were being distributed to families to help kids learn at home.

Colorado teachers have asked Gov. Jared Polis to remove some of the uncertainty introduced into their profession by the coronavirus.

In a petition signed by 3,000 educators, the state’s largest teachers union asked Polis to direct school districts to mutually agree with local bargaining units on the conditions surrounding distance learning, including reimbursement for teachers who made out-of-pocket expenditures to keep classrooms up and running even while school buildings are closed.

“It would help to ease some of the anxiety, the stress, the fear as well as some of the negative impacts,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

The challenge is that there is only so much Polis can dictate to districts from Denver. Colorado school districts pride themselves on being locally controlled and many of the guarantees the union is seeking will be decided at the local level.

That means districts will make their own decisions on curriculum, teacher pay, and whether they put their money into arts or technology. But the coronavirus crisis is putting “more chaos” and anxiety in an already fragmented school system, said Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

 “We have 178 school districts in Colorado,” she said. “In a crisis, when you have the potential of 178 different ways of addressing or dealing with a situation, that just adds to the level of chaos that’s already in the system.”

“Gov. Polis has shown brave and decisive leadership through this crisis, but our state's lower-income and vulnerable populations need more. Our educators and students need more,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Colorado canceled state tests and waived the requirements for teacher evaluations that rely heavily on those test scores to measure student growth. 

Teachers believe ensuring some consistency in whether school staff get paychecks throughout the coronavirus crisis, or consistency in workload expectations for teachers within districts, “would help to ease some of the anxiety, the stress, the fear as well as some of the negative impacts,” Baca-Oehlert says.

Equity In Remote Learning

First, teachers who signed the union petition are asking the governor to direct superintendents to bargain with local unions or mutually agree upon distance learning practices and policies, and to reimburse educators for personal expenses related to teaching. Teachers are seeing a lot of disparity within districts in what kinds of content teachers are producing for students.

Working through the challenges of distance learning was a top concern among teachers in a recent CEA survey.

Carlos Meikel, an elementary art teacher at Shepardson Elementary in the Poudre School district, said he has spent about $200 on supplies and technology to teach remotely. He hopes to get reimbursed by the end of the year.

“Our own budgets are crunched as well,” he said. “Some of us have spouses who are out of work. It would be nice to be reimbursed for those extra things we’re having to get.”

Meikel says his district is doing the best it can to provide training and support but he sees a lot of disparity in the amounts of creative content teachers are putting out to students.

“We don’t want an iron fist on this but we do want a little more direction that way so that our district can direct us a little better and that keeps all the teachers and students on a level playing field," he said.

Pay And Budgets

Teachers are also asking the governor to insist that all school districts continue to pay all employees for the full school year. They’re worried that staff won’t get the full pay and benefits they’d normally get during the summer months.

The real concern is over support staffers. If school buildings aren’t open for a time, school bus drivers aren’t needed, maintenance becomes less important and even food services workers could face layoffs. The union wants Polis to lean on school districts to keep people employed if schools are closed for an extended period. 

“We are starting to hear some districts begin to have the conversations about whether or not they will continue to pay everybody for the length of the school closure,” Baca-Oehlert said. “ We are calling on the governor from his position to say to superintendents that it is important to continue to pay people so that we don’t have further economic domino effects — that would put another whole realm of people trying to access unemployment.” 

For those on the front lines, it’s a constant worry.

“We need to know we are going to be paid and our benefits continue. We need to know we can support our families,” said Monte Hollander, a school bus driver in Jefferson County Schools.

Conor Cahill, press secretary for Polis, said the governor has already made clear to districts that he considers educators critical.

“Our administration has strongly encouraged school districts to continue paying educators throughout this crisis to support them in this critical work, and is focused on doing everything we can to expand access to key services to support families during this time,” Cahill said.

ICE Raids And Student Fears

In the petition, teachers also ask the governor to implore ICE to cease all arrests and to release non-violent offenders, halt rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis, and expand unemployment benefits and expedite access.

Polis has limited authority to assert control over ICE. He has asked that banks and landlords do not begin eviction proceedings against anyone during the crisis, and he has also worked to help the state’s unemployment benefits portal keep up with unprecedented demand, though complaints about access continue.

But it is ICE that those teachers would most like to corral.

Immigration affects most of the kids in Kelly Osuna’s classes. She’s a high school Spanish teacher at Overland High, where students speak more than 60 languages and come from more than 80 countries.

As she communicates with her students during the pandemic, their stories are similar.

“They are stories of fear and worry and anxiety,” she said. “Our young people need to feel secure in the fact that their parents will come home from the essential jobs that they are working.”

One student, a junior, told Osuna that her job in fast food is sustaining the entire family right now because other family members are worried about ICE raids. The teen’s job does not provide masks or gloves and “she worries that she could be a carrier and that she could bring the virus home to her uninsured parents,” Osuna said.

Osuna said another undocumented student witnessed a drunk driving accident and called 911, but now she is fearful the police have her information.

Osuna has observed that her undocumented families are the ones who are struggling the most with remote learning. Recent arrivals have not logged on and other students have told her families are afraid to go to schools to pick up a school-issued computer. She’s sent information to families for free internet service but families were told it could take up to a month to connect service.

“Everyone in our state needs to feel secure — not fearful and harassed,” Osuna said.

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