A board member’s apology to teachers, a survey critical of school district leadership, and a faculty dispirited by the pandemic provided for a sobering discussion of Aspen School District’s state of affairs during a virtual meeting held Monday.
“Some of this stuff is really hard to hear,” said Superintendent David Baugh, adding “this is a time of high tension, high stress.”
Baugh’s comments came after a presentation of Aspen Education Association results from a survey conducted Jan. 12 to 17. Survey results from the AEA, the representative arm of district teachers, showed 52.4% of the 103 respondents planned to remain at the district. Another 19.4% said they were either leaving the district or seriously considering it, and an additional 26.2% replied they either weren’t sure or preferred not to answer the question.
“This means that we could lose over 50 staff members,” the survey said. “This is NOT the entire ASD population, only AEA members.”
Monday was a milestone of sorts since the pandemic hit last year: For the first time since March, students from preschool through high school were on campus at the same time on the same day and not under a hybrid-learning structure.
But instead of teachers updating officials about how the day went with their students under pandemic-related restrictions, they were spelling out their frustrations to a board and administration they said have lacked empathy and appreciation for their efforts under daunting conditions.
Aside from the survey results, teachers have been publicly expressing their issues with the district’s management of the pandemic crisis — from how it determines when students and teachers return to class to more recently how it compiles its COVID-19 dashboard data — since the pandemic started last spring. Comments from school board member Katy Frisch calling out educators at a Jan. 18 meeting, however, touched off the greatest public uproar so far from teachers and also an AEA statement condemning her remarks.
At the time Frisch made her statement suggesting teachers were partly to blame for case spread and quarantines, Pitkin County had one of top 20 highest incidence rates in the country, and the district was hobbled by a teacher shortage brought on by quarantines.
“While I do appreciate the teachers and everything they have done,“ Frisch said at the meeting, ”there have been some very poor decisions recently, and through the fall as well, that have contributed to classes needing to go to remote — entire grade levels to go to remote.
“Just to put it in context, when staff gets together outside of the classroom, or outside of the day, during lunch, whatever it is, the decision that ends up happening where people are gathering without masks in whatever environment, turns to lots of kids ending up going to remote, and perhaps it’s also kids doing poor decisions.”
Frisch offered a prepared apology near the beginning of the meeting during board member comments.
“I am sorry that my comments at the last board meeting caused stress to some and may have been demoralizing to others,” Frisch said. “This was certainly not my intention. My focus remains on the children and the families of our district, and providing a voice at this table for our families.
“I was merely trying to emphasize the importance of vigilance to try to follow established protocols and mitigate the quarantines and any potential spread in our community. I was not placing blame on any individuals, but calling attention to our community as a whole.“
Frisch emphasized she is just one member on a board of five. Even so, from a teacher who said Frisch’s comments clearly singled her out, to another who said the remarks were the final straw for her decision to leave the district, educators said they were not only wearing down from the pandemic’s classroom struggles, but also from a lack of appreciation and empathy from the district’s administration and school board.
Sixth-grade teacher Kristin Zodrow was one of those teachers. She said she tested positive for COVID-19 days before Frisch’s remarks at the January meeting. The board member’s comments were aimed at Zodrow, the teacher said.
“When I received the results of my positive test and then I went into a phase of being very scared, and then I was very sad to hear what was happening at the board meeting,“ Zodrow said. ”Casting judgment and making unfounded accusations in a public forum about teacher behavior was inappropriate. I felt publicly shamed by someone who chose to use their time to criticize and embarrass instead of showcase empathy, respect and compassion.“
Salting the wound, Zodrow said, was that she was exposed to the virus “by showing up every day, just doing our job.”
Zodrow called for an end to the “toxic, dismissive communication that is taking place” in school board meetings and embracing “unwavering compassion for each other, for our school staff, and especially for our front-line teaching staff.”
Zodrow’s comments came after Frisch made her apology, which did not compel the teacher to change course with her statement.
“I was the sixth-grade teacher. I was the one who tested positive. I was the one that was referenced for shutting the sixth-grade down, and to hear comments like that when I was already in isolation just me, myself and I being scared, … it just felt like I was being kicked while I was down.”
Teacher and coach Larissa Bohn said Frisch’s remarks were consistent with what she has been hearing at past board meetings since March.
However, she said, “I’m going to be completely honest with you: The comments from the last board meeting absolutely catalyzed my decision to put in my two-weeks notice on Friday. I do not want to be part of a system that continues to bully the people I love — teachers.”
Frisch wasn’t just the recipient of criticism. Stephanie Nixon, who heads the AEA, said Frisch recently reached out to her over the polarizing comments. Nixon said conversations like the one she had with Frisch are integral to the district’s moving forward positively.
“I found it very valuable for her to reach out to me this week and I think that we are moving in a good direction,” Nixon said. “And I just really appreciate that, and I think that hopefully it’s going to help me become a better leader as well.”
Other teachers, like Casey Cunningham at the elementary school, said parents have let their kids attend class knowing they had COVID-19 symptoms.
“There have been several teachers that have become ill following parents breaking protocols,” she said. “Of these cases, one of the teachers went to emergent care twice over the holidays, and another is having heart complications due to COVID that Pitkin County traced back to our schools.”
Cunningham said cases are being transmitted on campus but the district won’t report that information.
“Our admin has a responsibility to report transmissions that have occurred in our school to the papers and in our COVID scale,” she said, saying parents, teachers and students would behave differently knowing the disease has spread on campus.
The district, in response to questions last week from The Aspen Times about how it reports its cases on the dashboard, said the online tool is intended “to show trends, it’s not the end-all-to-be-all record. … We are reporting numbers that are made available to us which includes our testing. We do not always get names of other students who test outside of us and we cannot require parents (of a high schooler who has not been in school per say) reach out to the nurse to let us know.”