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Why Many DPS Teachers Don't Want to Return Yet for In-Person School

Art classes amid COVID face plenty of restrictions.
Art classes amid COVID face plenty of restrictions.
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From 4 to 7 p.m. today, January 21, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association is hosting a vigil at the Denver Public Schools administration building, at 1860 Lincoln Street, "to honor all of the DPS students, families and staff who have been or will be directly impacted by COVID in schools."

The timing of this event isn't coincidental. Many secondary schools in the Denver district are returning to in-person instruction starting next Monday, January 25, on a hybrid basis before moving to in-person teaching full-time a week later, on February 1. But DCTA representative and high school teacher Charlie Gaare, who's written an open letter to the DPS administration, says the majority of educators at her facility aren't comfortable being back in the classroom at this point, and won't be until after the staff can be vaccinated — which isn't supposed to start happening until March at the earliest under the state's shifting priority timetable.

This schedule is "putting the lives of the teachers and the students' families in jeopardy for something that isn't necessary, and not what they had before," maintains Gaare, who asked that her school not be identified because her comments apply generally to secondary schools in Denver and beyond. "Students are going to be sitting in a classroom, but for a lot of them, it's going to be less of a positive experience, for a lot of different reasons, than what they're experiencing now."

According to Gaare, a recent survey showed that just over 30 percent of her colleagues were comfortable coming back to school for in-person learning right now, with more than 67 percent preferring not to do so.

These ratios are basically reversed when it comes to students' desire to be back in their school, Gaare acknowledges, with most wanting to return. But within those percentages, there's a disparity between "want versus need," she says.

"There are definitely students who need to come back, because their parents have a lot of kids and that's putting a burden on them, or they have a poor wi-fi connection — reasons like those," she explains. "But that's different from just wanting to come back — and most of the students who want to come back don't know what they're going to be getting."

Based on the instructions that DPS teachers have been given, Gaare continues, "Student desks will be facing forward, at least three feet apart, and they're not allowed to work in groups unless they're doing it on the computer. Teachers are not allowed to get within three feet of them, and we cannot hand out material to them — and they cannot hand work back to us. We can't even give them books."

The impact on so-called "specials" is likely to be even larger, she contends: "In art classes, there are no hard materials, and in music classes, the students won't be allowed to sing or play instruments — so a lot of music teachers will have to be teaching theory instead. And there will be similar things in speech and debate classes. Students are not going to be able to give oral presentations because of concerns about the virus spreading."

Of course, remote education has its drawbacks, too — but "for the instruction they're going to get under the circumstances we have now," Gaare says, "education in person and remote education are going to be equal in a lot of cases."

So why the rush to get back to in-person instruction when vaccines are on the way? Politics, Gaare believes. "There's pressure from the community to get kids back into school, and that affects elected officials," she suggests. "But our specific guidelines are such a bastardization — that's the best word I can come up with — of the guidelines from the CDC [the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. We're in a situation where kids in a lot of places will be getting a subpar education once we get back, but also an unsafe environment in which that's going to happen, in secondary schools especially. Elementary school teachers are in a bad spot, too, but the virus is three times more likely to spread in high schools than elementary schools."

The bottom line for Gaare: "I'd really like parents to consider not sending their students to school and waiting for the vaccine to be out before putting everybody at risk. The end is in sight, and we're so close. There's a safer way on the horizon."

We reached out to Denver Public Schools for a response to Gaare's concerns. It follows the letter below.

The impetus of this letter today is the impending decision of Denver Public Schools to send back their secondary students full time. After...seeing the results of a teacher survey from our School Leadership Team, it is an understatement to say the majority of teachers in our building are immensely concerned with our upcoming plan for multiple reasons that go beyond even the three I will highlight here.

One of the biggest issues facing teachers across the district centers around the back to school guidelines created by DPS. These current suggestions do not align with CDC’s back to to school recommendations. Based on the current plan put in place with guidance from CDPHE, DPS’s plan puts school spread of the virus at the moderate to high risk zone based on CDC’s guidance around positive test rates in the community, cohorting guidelines, social distancing guidelines, and quarantine recommendations. The district has created their own requirements and has justified it with questionable research going against the guidance from the nation’s experts at the CDC. Students at the high school level are also three times more likely to spread the virus than their elementary counterparts. This means Denver is about to experience large quantities of students joining together in a moderate to high risk environment in a population that is just as capable of spreading the virus as their adult counterparts.

Much of the push by the district is motivated by a desire for a return to normalcy for our students. Every teacher in our district also dreams of the day our students will get the full support our education provides, but the current plan is not that. Students will be returning to classes where their experience in the classroom will almost completely mimic what is happening online. Teachers are not allowed to hand out or collect papers. They cannot give students books or materials that are shared in any way. Students will only be able to work with classmates on their computers, as their desks need to remain at least three feet apart (CDC says six), and that their desks remain facing forward. Teachers working from behind a plexiglass barrier and staying at least three feet away from students is another feature of the less than normal circumstance. In essence students who are returning are having a remote experience with the added risk of virus exposure. Many of our courses are going to an even less productive experience as students are not allowed to participate in a meaningful way because the activity is associated with increased spread of the virus. Music classes, for example, will go from experiences where students can sing or play their instrument at home to being classes on music theory in person. Students who selected to stay home are going to be having an even less productive experience because the district is pushing to prioritize the experience of students in the classroom.

Much of the pressure to return to in person learning creates a massive inequity issue in a district that puts equity as one of its guiding principles. The virus has disproportionately impacted communities of color nationwide, and it is no different in Denver. Because of this our students of color selected online learning in significantly higher numbers than their white counterparts. The district’s plan right now is to have teachers live-stream their lessons to students who have asked to remain home. Live streaming is not an interactive experience. The district has no requirements that teachers interact with students who selected to stay at home during class time, nor are there built in requirements that these students be included in group work or checks for understanding. They receive a video transmission of their classes and then are asked to complete work and submit it online with very little chance for support from their peers or teachers. Their education is in essence being penalized because they have selected to remain safe in a global pandemic.

None of these choices on DPS’s part are what is really best for our community as a whole. We face down an even more contagious strain of the virus and still have an extremely high positivity rate in our community. In the face of our teachers [being] so near to being vaccinated, it leads to the very real question of why this unsafe and unfair plan has to happen right now. It is imperative the community have a clearer picture of what their high school students will really be experiencing and at what risk and cost. — Charlie Gaare

Denver Public Schools response:

"Denver Public Schools has worked hard over the last several months to develop a plan, in collaboration with our educators, to safely reopen schools for in-person learning. This includes providing the opportunity for students to return to school for in-person learning, based on plans made with educators, school leaders, the community and our health experts. At times, in response to rising community spread, those plans to return to in-person learning had to take an unfortunate backseat as we shifted to remote learning to safeguard the health of our students, staff and community.

"We know that many students learn best when they are able to interact with their teachers and peers. And our health partners have emphasized how critical in-person learning is to the education and overall health and well-being of our children, particularly our youngest learners.

"This is the impetus for DPS to welcome students back into our buildings as quickly and safely as possible. While the pandemic necessitates many differences in the way in-person learning is carried out – limiting class sizes, wearing face masks, maintaining physical distance – we feel it is important to do everything in our power to provide in-person learning opportunities, especially for our most vulnerable and underserved students. We are equally committed to offering a high-quality Virtual Program for those students and families who have chosen fully remote learning.

"We rely on the latest data and information from our trusted partners at CDPHE and Denver Health in all of our decision-making around how safe it is for schools to remain open, and how to safely conduct in-person learning. And we remain committed to close collaboration with our educators on our planning and decision-making.

"We believe that, as educators, we must consider the needs of our students first and foremost - the education and well-being of our students, the social emotional support our schools can provide and our ability to create opportunities for students to grow and thrive.”

This post has been updated to include a response from Denver Public Schools.

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