Some teachers in Denver high schools are apprehensive about their return to in-person learning, and they’re expressing their COVID-related safety concerns through collective action this week.
“It still feels very scary,” said Tiffany Choi, president of Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a 4,000-member union that represents educators throughout Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s biggest school district.
DPS middle and high schools for the first time this school year returned to various forms of in-person learning in recent days. Learning had previously been conducted remotely as part of pandemic safety restrictions. Monday was East High School’s first in-person day for students, and some teachers gathered for a walk-in before classes began. A walk-in is “a lower level action to build solidarity and build awareness around an issue,” Choi said, noting that participants had signs and hoped to spread the message that the teachers, concerned for safety in the school community, feel they should have access to the COVID vaccine.
The walk-in was repeated at East on Thursday, the school’s second day of some in-person learning. A teacher walk-in also occurred at South High School on Thursday, and more walk-ins at DPS schools are expected next week, Choi said.
Asked if collective action could escalate if the walk-ins don’t elicit a satisfactory response, such as reinstatement of remote learning or earlier access to the vaccine, Choi said, “I think, like with any action, there’s potential it will lead to escalation. There’s potential for escalation around this.” She added, “There’s a portion of our members, that is what they would need to be satisfied, is to go back to remote.”
A representative from the school district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis, whose office has overseen the state’s vaccine distribution plan, pointed to several measures Colorado has taken to ensure safety during in-person learning. The state has provided over 230,000 PCR tests this school year to members of the education community, 7 million medical-grade masks for teachers, and more than $15 million in grants for COVID safety measures such as outdoor classrooms and improvements to ventilation systems. The state next week will launch an at-home testing program for educators.
Colorado’s approach to in-person learning is detailed in its “Roadmap to In-Person Learning.”
“In-person learning is critical for the health, safety, and well-being of students and the whole family,” Polis said in a statement. “We know that remote learning is really hurting the participation of women in the workplace, juvenile mental health, childhood hunger, and loss of learning for our students.”
According to Colorado’s vaccination priority plan, teachers are part of phase 1B. The state is currently in the 1B phase, but people aged 70 and older come first within that phase. Teachers have been told they likely won’t have access to the vaccine until March. January has seen an increase in COVID outbreaks in schools while outbreaks in the state overall have recently decreased, according to The Denver Post.
A return to in-person learning has been encouraged by many health professionals and political leaders from both sides of the aisle. President Joe Biden on his first full day in office issued an executive order “to help create the conditions for safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible.” Polis has long characterized schools as relatively safe and in-person learning as essential to a sound education. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and also an advocate of in-person learning, said on Thursday, “It’s less likely for a child to get infected in the school setting than if they were just in the community,” according to NBC News.
About 15 educators participated in the East High School walk-in Monday, and that figure roughly doubled for the Thursday walk-in, said biology teacher Lauren Awdziejczyk, a DCTA representative at the school and organizer of the action. “We’re hoping that more continue to join us,” she said.
Participants called for teachers to have access to the COVID vaccine.
The return to in-person learning on one hand was welcome, Awdziejczyk said, because teachers want to be with their students. But, she said, “It’s scary dealing with something that is invisible, dealing with something that has such a big turnaround time from exposure to symptoms.” She added: “Teachers want to be back in school. We’re not asking to not return. We’re not asking to never return. It’s just we want it to be safe.”
She is not sure what comes next for teachers if the walk-ins do not lead to more immediate vaccinations. “Whether it works or not I want to be able to say I tried something,” she said.
Tay Anderson, an at-large member of the Denver Board of Education, said he plans to join a teacher walk-in at North High School on Monday. Anderson said he wants to acknowledge the concerns of teachers and support their appeal to the Polis administration concerning access to vaccinations.
“I really hope we get teachers vaccinated,” he said.
The board of education has not taken up the question of when schools should conduct learning remotely or in-person, and such decisions rest with the district administrators, Anderson said. He does not favor a return to remote learning, because the disruptions would be too great for so many families, particularly families of students of color, he said. Black mothers in the district have told him they can’t afford to keep kids home and that during remote learning they struggle to balance jobs and acting as adult supervision.
“There are a lot of things that go into it, and right now we have to figure out the middle ground,” Anderson said.