Cherry Creek schools are among the educational facilities scheduled to open for in-person learning on Monday, January 11, following an extended stretch of remote teaching prior to the holiday break. But while Kasey Ellis, who became the president of the Cherry Creek Education Association after 25 years of teaching middle school science, is looking forward to seeing students without the use of a computer, she is frustrated and upset by Governor Jared Polis's about-face regarding COVID-19 vaccinations for educators.
Polis initially took pride in announcing that teachers and school personnel would be added to Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout, which meant that they would be able to receive the first of two injections near the start of the semester. But after Cherry Creek and nine other districts, working in partnership with Centura, made schedules for staffers to get vaccinated, Polis said they'd have to wait until after everyone age seventy and above got their shots. At a January 8 press conference, he predicted that teachers could begin receiving vaccinations in March; as a result, the school year could be almost over before they get their second shot and achieve maximum immunity.
"I was really excited when the governor said, 'We're going to move educators up,' and really angry when he, in essence, said, 'Just kidding. That's not what I meant,'" Ellis says. "I voted for Governor Polis, and there are things I think he has done well. But his handling of schools this year has been a debacle, including vaccinations."
Quizzed about the prioritization switch earlier this week, Polis admitted that some of his office's messaging has been "chaotic" at times. But Ellis thinks it's been worse than that. "He didn't have a plan, and when he announced one, it's my understanding that districts and local health departments were unaware of it," she says. "So districts started trying to figure out how to get educators vaccinated, so that they'd have that extra layer of safety. But then he pulled the rug out from under educators — and he also took away that hope."
Ellis acknowledges that the plans for safely reopening Cherry Creek schools, which serves more than 55,000 students from eight metro-area municipalities, aren't dependent on the vaccine. She and her 2,700-plus members saw the opportunity to be vaccinated soon as "an extra holiday gift, if you will," she says. "And now, it's almost as if the gifter is saying, 'Sorry, this isn't meant for you. That was never my intention.'"
Not that she begrudges prioritizing those seventy and up, who, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, represent 78 percent of COVID-19 fatalities in the state. But she doesn't understand why septuagenarians and educators can't both get vaccinated at the same time, as opposed to making teachers and school-support personnel, such as bus drivers and secretaries, wait for two more months. Explains Ellis: "Basically, he's saying, 'We can't possibly figure out how to rotate in both of these groups' — and that, in my opinion, hangs educators and districts out to dry. In some respects, this is pitting educator against educator, and that should never happen."
In recent months, Polis has argued that schools are some of the safest work environments during the pandemic, despite their continuing prevalence on the CDPHE's regular outbreak reports; this week, he announced that free rapid test kits will be provided to educational facilities on request to add a further layer of protection. (Denver Public Schools is supplementing this service by offering free testing for students.) But according to Ellis, "I don't think it's as big a deal as he made it seem. He's sending these kits to educators, but what we're seeing is COVID-19 coming into the building because of community spread and students who are asymptomatic. So unless he's going to send kits to every single citizen in the state, so students can test in the morning before parents send them to school, it will be a Band-Aid, not a fix."
Cherry Creek had to go remote in the first place because "we were seeing the numbers increase among staff and we couldn't cover all the absences," she adds. "As we continued to see the community spread, we realized that operationally, the district couldn't function" — and she fears this same dynamic could reappear soon no matter what districts do.
In the meantime, Ellis, who's currently working with others to create an educator-safety campaign, offers Polis this reminder: "You need to have a plan in place — and don't roll stuff out until you do."
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