Students at Pueblo’s Sunset Park Elementary are learning from home this week. But some of their teachers are unhappy they’re not being allowed to do the same.
Five staff members who work in the school building have tested positive for COVID-19, but the district is still requiring teachers to conduct their remote learning sessions from their classrooms.
In-person classes at the elementary are scheduled to resume Monday.
Sunset Park was shut down Oct. 30. At that time, there were four cases – one staff member and three students. Three of those cases were from one household. Since Nov. 3, four new cases, all school staff members, have been reported.
Pueblo 60 school district said it had to close the school because it couldn’t supply enough substitutes for all the staff who were required to quarantine. The school was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected and sat vacant for 10 days.
“Because these [new] cases have come in at least five days after the building was closed, we are unable to confirm that these cases are related to any potential exposures at the school,” it said in a statement.
“We want a compelling reason from the district why they are insisting that educators come into the building, instead of working remote, especially given the increasing number of confirmed cases at the school,” said Mike Maes, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the local teacher’s union.
The union sent a letter Monday night asking officials why educators must be physically in the building when their students are not. It says if students are required to work remotely as outlined under the outbreak guidelines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, teachers should be as well.
The guidance says that teachers could go back to work in the building after they have been in isolation for 10 days from symptom onset and if they are at least 24 hours fever-free without medicine and have improving symptoms. However, the school or district makes the final determination in this matter.
Maes also pointed to Gov. Jared Polis’ guidance Monday asking state employees in counties that reach red or orange levels of the virus on the state’s color-coded dial to work remotely from home. Pueblo County is currently on yellow.
“There is absolutely no good reason to make educators come into buildings the district can’t guarantee are 100 percent safe,” Maes said.
The district says it follows procedure when notified of positive COVID-19 cases and investigates each case with the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment. Through contact tracing, anyone who was in close contact with the positive individual must quarantine for a period of 14 days after the exposure. The quarantine period at Sunset Park concluded on Nov. 9.
The district argues that having teachers conduct remote lessons from their classrooms is important; it allows students to see the familiar classroom environment and gives teachers to have access to necessary materials and technology at their schools.
“Coming to a building without students presents minimal risk to staff members and allows them to social distance in the confines of their own classrooms,” the district said in its statement.
But the Pueblo Education Association’s Maes says teachers' feelings should be taken into consideration.
“They’re afraid, frankly,” he said. “ They understand the building has been sanitized. The issue is the increased risk of being around other people in the building given the dramatic increase in cases around COVID-19.”
Maes says teachers can get the supplies they need at school and leave the building. He says letting students see their teachers work from home also lets students know that they’re not the only ones trying to carry on their routines at home, and that “we’re all in this together.”
Sunset Park Elementary students will be back in in-person learning on Monday, Nov. 16, until the Thanksgiving break. And then they will follow the rest of the district, which is shifting all preschool through 8th-grade students to remote learning, potentially through the end of fall semester.
High schools in the district shifted to distance learning Wednesday.
The district announced the move to distance learning because of the “extremely high incidence of COVID-19 transmission” in the community. Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a message to families that schools have done a “stellar job” in implementing health and safety protocols and have been effective in containing and minimizing the spread of the virus in schools. But surging COVID-19 rates in the community made it impossible to keep schools open.
“With more and more student cohorts and staff needing to quarantine, our school system has been significantly strained. We are unable to provide the necessary coverage to continue to operate our schools and provide in-person instruction to our students,” she said.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated there was an outbreak at Sunset Park Elementary. While there are multiple cases, it is not an outbreak.