Denver teachers’ union says’ enough is enough ‘amid COVID outbreak
“Enough is enough.”
That was the Denver Teachers Union’s message to the superintendent in a letter Thursday that called for a week-long district-wide switch to distance learning to allow students and staff exposed to COVID-19 to self-isolate and get tested, and if they are positive, get over it.
But Superintendent Alex Marrero is sticking to his commitment to keep schools open for in-person learning despite staff shortages.
Union president Rob Gould said teachers don’t want to shut down schools either, but “when you have that many staff it seems like they come up with piecemeal solutions.” The Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s demand for virtual learning was not as vehement as those in other parts of the country like Chicago, where schools were closed all week because teachers refuse to report to work.
In its letter, the Denver union said that if a district-wide shift to distance learning was not possible, it was calling for a host of other safety measures, including:
- Clear thresholds for when individual schools can switch to distance learning based on the percentage of staff who are sick.
- The ability of managers to make distance learning decisions “without unrealistic manipulation by central office administrators”.
- Mandatory deployment of central office staff to schools to fill staff absences.
- Supply of KN95 masks for all students and staff.
- Rapid antigen test for sick students and teachers before they return to school.
Denver public schools have already implemented some of the measures. On Thursday, Marrero said KN95 masks are available to all staff and students who want them, although some teachers have reported shortages in their schools. On Friday, he announced that all central office staff will be deployed to schools at least one day a week starting Thursday.
District data provided to Chalkbeat shows 348 teachers were sick on Tuesday, the first day back to school after winter break. This represents about 7% of the 4,700 teachers in the district. As of Wednesday, that number rose to 411 teachers, or about 9% of the teaching force.
But district spokesman Scott Pribble said those numbers do not represent a slight increase from the fall, even though the omicron variant has skyrocketed the number of COVID cases this winter.
âThe numbers are in line with our daily fall averages,â Pribble said.
Student attendance was around 80% Tuesday and 82% Wednesday, according to district data. This is 7% less than the same period last year. Most schools in Denver were open for in-person learning on Tuesday, although the list of schools who had temporarily switched to partial or full distance learning increased throughout the week. As of Friday afternoon, it stood at 25 out of 206 schools.
The district was also short of around a third of its bus drivers, causing long delays and making it difficult for students to get to school.
Other districts in the metro area are also struggling with staff shortages, but most are keeping buildings open so far. Adams District 14, however, announced that it would be remotely the week of January 10.
In Denver, Marrero rejected the union’s call for a clear threshold to switch to distance learning, saying Thursday the district would continue to assess applications on a case-by-case basis. A new policy put in place this fall gives it the final say, though Pribble said the district hasn’t turned down any requests from principals whose schools are understaffed.
âIt really depends on who came out,â Marrero said. âI have often been asked ‘what is metric?’ and it’s hard to say because we have so many schools and they look different.
At least one of Denver’s charter school networks, STRIVE Prep, has a threshold in place: if less than 65% of a school’s staff are present, the school can temporarily switch to distance learning, said CEO Chris Gibbons. Four of STRIVE Prep’s 10 schools were far away the first week of January.
Almost all staff at Denver public schools are fully immunized, and Marrero said that while transmission of COVID can occur anywhere, schools are âsafe havensâ for students.
âThis is to make sure that we minimize the huge risks to our educators and our students because it doesn’t look like it’s going to go away,â he said, stressing âhugeâ. He said no new variation “will stop us from doing what we do best, which is educating children.”
Alex Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Bryant-Webster Dual Language School, said while the number of staff absences this week may be similar to fall, things look different. Nelson said he knows more teachers than ever who have COVID. Seven of the nine grade levels at his school have been quarantined because students got sick, he said.
As in the fall, Nelson covered his sick colleagues. On Friday morning, he replaced the school secretary. Three of the phone calls he answered were from families who said their child or another family member had tested positive.
âWe are in a time of crisis,â said Nelson. âI want to step up, everyone wants to step up for each other, but it’s starting to wear out. â¦ The energy I get from chatting and checking in with my colleagues is always like, âHow bad is this going to get? “”
Gould, the union president, said he heard the same from teachers across town.
“What stood out to me about the educators I spoke with over the past two days is that yes, it’s a surge that’s happening right now, but it’s in addition to the last semester,” did he declare. âIt’s a cumulative trauma that has been inflicted on our educators over time. “
Heather Abreu, who teaches visual arts at Colfax Elementary, was home sick with COVID when schools in Denver reopened after winter recess. When the district changed its policy to allow sick staff to return after just five days of isolation instead of the previous 10, she received a call from her manager asking, âDoes this change your situation? “
The answer was no. In fact, she felt sicker on the fifth day than earlier in her illness. She was relieved that her school had found a replacement to cover her entire absence.
Abreu said the current challenge is not just a highly transmissible variant of COVID, but the cumulative impact of the past two years. Like many teachers, Abreu is also a parent who juggles his own children’s disrupted schooling and family challenges. She compared the capacity of teachers to that of an overloaded circuit.
âYou can plug in so many things and run so many things until something pops,â she said.
Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.