Aspen teachers say they’re being made pawns in the pandemic |

Aspen teachers say they’re being made pawns in the pandemic

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School on August 26, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Superintendent David Baugh told the Aspen school community Monday that he would like to see classrooms fully open by Nov. 30, while teachers continued to stay on message that they fear for their personal health as well as their students’ under the public schools’ reopening plan.

The November date, Baugh said, is “contingent on the COVID-19 levels in the community. We do consult with Pitkin Health and obviously they review the data with us and help us think through the decision-making process.”

A number of teachers, however, remains skeptical about the reopening plans.

Responding to a letter signed by 20 pediatricians in the Roaring Fork Valley urging for the opening of area public schools on a full-time basis, some teachers said they believed they are being used as political “chess pieces” and “pawns” in a touchy and sometimes contentious process that has involved educators, parents, principals, school district administrators and board members.

Some parents have turned personal during the process and have personally insulted teachers because of the job they are doing online or for raising caution flags about starting in-person school, according to some educators who spoke to the board.

“The blaming and the bullying need to stop,” said Kay Erickson, president of the Aspen Education Association, which is the teachers’ representative group.

A number of parents have expressed dissatisfaction with the school district’s response to the pandemic, in large part because of a phased reopening plan that so far has seen the K-8 Aspen Community School in Woody Creek and elementary school open with a hybrid system this fall, while the students in the middle and high schools have taken class remotely.

A recently completed survey by ASD also saw 91.4% of 698 responding parents say they would send their children to school either through the hybrid approach or full time. In another question, 10.5% of 702 respondents said they would be “very interested” in their kids in K-8 continuing their studies online.

The district has scheduled Oct. 26, which comes after fall break and marks the start of the second quarter, to begin hybrid classes for the middle and high schools.

The pediatricians’ letter, which was sent to health departments in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, as well as the superintendents of both the Aspen School District and Roaring Fork Schools, expressed empathy for the teachers but said taking the proper precautions and protocols should temper the health risks of on-campus instruction.

“As fellow front-line workers, we empathize with the concerns of teachers and staff about their own health and safety,” the letter said. “We know we can mitigate the risks for all by combining several strategies recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Colorado. Our school systems have already developed extensive plans and have been successful locally at implementing these safety measures that significantly reduce potential disease risk: 1) Frequent hand washing; 2) Social distancing; 3) Facial coverings; 4) Recommending routine vaccinations, including for Influenza; 5) Screening for symptoms of COVID-19 at the door; and 6) Cohorting children and staff into smaller groups to limit the impact of quarantine and limit disease spread.”

Erickson countered that the ASD doesn’t have large enough classrooms to allow proper social distancing when full of students; many classrooms don’t have sinks to wash hands with hot water; the school district can’t legally require anybody to vaccinate; contact-tracing is more challenging without cohorts because more people can be exposed to the virus; and the district doesn’t currently have the capabilities to screen children before they get on the school bus.

When operating with the entire study body, faculty and staff, ASD has about 2,000 people on campus.

“We are talking about a global pandemic where people are dying,” said high school teacher Tameira Wilson. “I cannot stress that enough.”

Some parents said they understand the challenges and concerns teachers have, especially among those who also have children in school.

But the parent survey’s findings “just show where the sentiments of the community are,” said parent Tara Nelson, a member of the volunteer task force that has been researching and meeting about how to reopen the schools.

Another parent suggested teachers need to buck up just like nurses and doctors do. Mother Fiona Andrulaitis said she has tried to become a volunteer teacher but the district has too much red tape for prospective aides. She said remote learning has been ineffective and little progress is being made to reopen.

“We want to help you teachers, even if it means getting in the classroom and you teachers can Zoom from home because you don’t think it’s safe,” she said. “We’ll do it. We’ll step up. We want our children to be educated.”

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