Cherry Creek schools union chief takes in-person learning ‘one day at a time’

Teachers’ association helped plan reopening ‘every step of the way,’ leader says

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Kasey Ellis is no newcomer to the world of education.

Once a school counselor of two years at Fox Ridge Middle School in far southeast Aurora in the Cherry Creek School District, Ellis also spent 18 years as a middle-school science teacher in that district and a few more in a small rural district in New York state.

Now, she serves as president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, the union that represents teachers and other school staff in negotiations with the Cherry Creek district.

And even as the coronavirus pandemic upends the education realm she knows so well, she doesn’t seem fazed.

“I looked at the reopening of schools from a realist’s perspective,” Ellis said. “Regardless of how we opened, there were going to be bumps in the process that would need to be addressed. CCSD and (the union) began working on what reopening might look like in early April.”

Behind that process was a task force of union members and leadership, school district leaders, and parents. As guidance changed from the Colorado Department of Education, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state public-health department, and Tri-County Health Department, the plans for reopening also evolved, Ellis said.

She had served for three years as an association representative — a position that assists union members at a particular school or district building with their concerns — and worked as an area director for four years, overseeing around eight representatives. Ellis was elected vice president of the union in 2017 and was elected president this May. She took office July 1.

Here are Ellis’ thoughts on how the district planned to reopen in-person classes and how returning to school has gone so far. Students returned to school the week of Aug. 17 on different days by grade level.

Why did the teachers’ union support the district’s reopening plan?

We were part of the planning every step of the way. We sent a demands letter to (Superintendent Scott) Siegfried and the CCSD Board of Education that outlined what we were hearing from members at the time that had to be in place before we could support the reopening plan. … CCSD met every one of our demands. They even installed MERV-13 filters into all of our buildings’ (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems to provide greater filtration of the air and increased the run times as well.

How do you feel about the district’s mask-wearing requirement?

CCEA demanded that masks be worn by all students and staff. We heard that request very clearly from the members and … we were satisfied with what the district agreed to put in place.

What have you heard from teachers about how the first week back went?

We heard that the phase-in week (in which students could practice new routines prior to the full start of school) was great for most teachers. It eased both teachers and students back into schools and allowed for an opportunity for teachers and students to become acclimated to what school in person will look like.

As of Aug. 25, the school district announced that three staff members and one student had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, a dozen staff members and 10 students were told to quarantine. What was your reaction?

Dr. Siegfried called personally to alert me to cases and the action steps taken by the district that were in conjunction with Tri-County Health. I appreciated the quick notification and the response by the district to these cases as well as their partnership with Tri-County Health and COVID Check Colorado (testing).

Do you have any fears or factors that make you optimistic about the rest of the semester?

Right now, I am dealing with one day at a time.

What are teachers saying about how online classes are going?

What I have been told by teachers who are teaching at our online program, known as Elevation, is that there is a lot of new technology to learn and a learning curve that goes with that. The program went from around 32 teachers last year to 470 teachers this year, which has been a huge program adjustment.

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