Meredith C. Carroll: Pandemic politics and hurt infect Aspen schools 

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off
Meredith Carroll
Courtesy photo

When the Aspen School District Board of Education meeting ended four hours after it began on Sept. 21, it seems there was only one thing on which the more than 200 virtual attendees agreed: The meeting was emphatically difficult to watch. 

Aspen Elementary School second-grade teacher Nikki Dorr was among the educators who spoke out.

“‘Inequity’ is defined as ‘lack of fairness or justice,’ and it is a word that has shown up as of late in countless emails, letters, news articles and conversations,” Dorr said of some community reaction to a new ASD service whereby faculty offspring in kindergarten through eighth grade can access free, on-campus learning supervision during school hours. 

Earlier this month, BOE member Katy Frisch remarked on the “disequity” of having teachers’ own children cared for while “kids who don’t come from families with financial support can be the losers in this. And that’s why we need to get them back in school.”

“I ask that you remember that this is an effort to keep district employees working at their workplace,” Dorr, a mom of two, said. “Without the supervised learning program, teachers, too, will be faced with the choice of being home with their children or doing their jobs, like much of the community.”

Dorr was echoing sentiment also expressed by other teachers that some of the most vocal complaints about local schools not fully reopening are from families afforded choice, like boarding and private school, including a now legendary pod of second-graders in Woody Creek. However, Frisch maintains that she’s hearing from another contingent entirely.

“I’m showing up for the families who are not showing up at meetings and not engaging in the process,” she said, “whether because they’re working and don’t have the time, resources or inclination to get involved. I’m worried about the kids who don’t have anything.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Frisch recognized how her comments bristled teachers, but “at the end of the day, we have a large number of people in our community with no one to watch their kids and I thought it was important for the community to know that teachers are getting that benefit.”

BOE member Susan Marolt disagrees that what’s being offered is any kind of pandemic perk. “It’s a basic, not a benefit,” she said. “We’re providing supervision, not teaching. It’s part of what we can do as an employer to help teachers do their work.”

At the same time, Marolt acknowledged the tension and some poor form in last week’s meeting and in general, even if she remains optimistic that everyone is coming from a good place. (“No one acts like they normally would in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.) That’s why she’s trying to steer the conversation to “where it’s not our teachers’ fault” that the schools haven’t fully reopened. And parents, she said, are pushing to get kids back in school because “they value the teachers and what they do in the classroom that can’t be done at home.”

Except the message isn’t being received by all teachers, many of whom report feeling disrespected by the board and parents while simultaneously exhausted and overwhelmed with a workload that has nothing to do with teaching or grading papers. Rather, they’re buckling under the anxiety of trying to keep everyone — themselves, their colleagues, students, families and the community — safe.

“I’ve never been as tired at the beginning of the school year as I’ve been this year,” one teacher said privately. “I feel like I’m running on empty 24/7. The stress level is higher and we’re also managing the kids’ stress. The worry is eating at us.”

It’s not all that different from what’s bedeviling a large number of families: panic about COVID-19, concern of academic and social-emotional slides, plus major economic uncertainty. Frisch points to fear as Enemy No. 1, against which the most powerful weapon is data.

“There are no guarantees,” she said. “All we can do is mitigate risks and look at facts, and the fact is that there’s a path for the whole community to get back to work. I know there are teachers who don’t like that but a (public) school district is a taxpayer-funded community service with an implicit social contract to serve our youth.”

Frisch contends much of what’s bogging down the ASD community is leftover mistrust from years of a fundamental breakdown in confidence due to poor (prior) leadership at the district administration level. That includes issues raised by teachers at the board meeting regarding HVAC systems, a too-small substitute teacher pool, inadequate classroom furniture and safety protocols, and bathroom hygienics. 

Frisch said those would normally be chores for the administration and not the board, except “the process is broken.”

“There’s no trust from the teachers that this will be figured out, so they think they need to be engaged in every aspect of every decision,” she said.

Still, Marolt believes Aspen’s BOE, a traditionally nonpartisan entity, has been lucky to escape politics until now, even if she’s not surprised that they’ve come to play in regards to who thinks it’s safe, and how to reopen schools.

“People are upset at COVID-19,” she said, “but that’s not a very satisfying target for your anger.”

For her part, Frisch, whose husband, former Aspen City Councilman Adam Frisch, is in the process of becoming an ASD substitute teacher, said, “If I need to be a community punching bag, so be it. I have empathy for the teachers. I get it; it’s hard. But I don’t think teachers are a special subset. I think the entire world is going through this right now, and if you look at the entire world, we’re doing OK here. We need some humility and recognition. I’m not trying to fight with the teachers, just push them a little past their comfort level to bring everyone back together.”

More at and on Twitter @MCCarroll.