Teachers call for requirements to return to school, not suggestions from public health

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EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Teachers used the El Paso County Public Health Board’s monthly meeting to call on the department to do more when it comes to the standards schools use to return to in-person learning next month. Specifically, educators called on the recommendations on the Public Health website to become requirements for opening.

“When these kinds of statements are given as recommendations and not requirements, school districts feel like regular class sizes are acceptable,” said Angela Bird, a teacher and President of the Widefield Education Association.

During her public comment, Bird said a survey of the association members found 76 percent of them are concerned about the number of students they would have in a classroom; 74 percent said social distancing of six feet would be impossible in the classroom.

“You are essentially sending students and educators back to the same overcrowded, underfunded public education institutions,” said Cari Fox, President of the Academy Education Association.

The teachers who spoke to the Board Wednesday called for districts to provide testing, personal protective equipment, publicly posted case counts for buildings, create requirements schools should adhere to in order to return to the classroom, county-wide standards for student per-square-foot ratios and create a threshold for when in-person learning should be suspended again. Some teachers who are in at-risk populations for COVID-19 testified remotely or had colleagues read their concerns.

EPCPH has created guidelines that call for masks, give an outline for handling outbreaks of different scales. It does not provide recommendations for class sizes but suggests that students be kept in the same group as they go from class to class.

“These students are not in a bubble,” said Melissa Ellenberger, a teacher in District 20, “They go home to their siblings who have also interacted with students in their cohorts. An infectious student can knock out, not only their own cohort but the cohorts at multiple schools.”

Lisa Smith, a middle school band teacher, wore a face covering and plastic face shield to the board meeting, saying that is what she plans to wear to school every day as she teaches classes ranging from 27 students to 72. She worries that the amount of interactions teachers will have with different groups of students makes them susceptible to catching the virus.

Fighting through tears, she told the board she can’t make distancing work on the best day.

“I’ve been in my room all summer trying to stack chairs to figure out how to make it work and I don’t know-how,” Smith said.

Educators also wanted EPCPH to inspect schools to ensure there is adherence to county standards. Fox likened those checks to an inspection by the fire department.

The teachers varied in their acceptance of what the county recommended for schools. Some suggestions they all like, some educators had disagreements with. All of them, however, called for something to make the districts stick to the guidelines.

“Thank you for the recommendations,” said Ian Meyer, a k-5 music teacher in the Widefield School District 3, “Now, make the requirements, or we’re going to see massive strikes and walkouts or massive outbreaks in our community. We don’t want that. We want to be with our kids; we want to come back.”

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