Union wants new Jeffco restart plan

Educators rally over safety concerns with start of school now two weeks away

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Just two weeks before Jeffco’s 2020-2021 school year will begin, Jefferson County Education Association or JCEA, the local teachers union, plans to call on the district to change its process for planning students’ return to school.

The union’s main ask is that teachers have more direct say in the district’s restart plan. As opposed to district leaders controlling the restart plan, the JCEA would like the district to create a committee of leaders, teachers and parents to have the authority over changing the plan.

Jeffco Public Schools has spent the summer planning for the 2020-2021 school year (scheduled to begin the week of Aug. 24), amid unfamiliar health and safety guidelines from the state and county to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Potential plans have changed throughout the summer. On July 8 the district stated that all students would have the option to learn remotely or return in-person starting the week of Aug. 24.

But an update on July 23 said that from Aug. 24 through Sept. 4, all students will engage in remote learning. Further, beginning Sept. 8, elementary students will have the option to learn remotely or in-person five days a week, while secondary students will have the option to learn remotely or engage in a hybrid schedule, in which they will attend in-person some days but not all five days of a week.

As of press time on Aug. 11, that was the working plan for Jeffco Publich Schools. The district provided a statement to Colorado Community Media saying that updates to the plan have been informed by input from many sources, including staff members and the state and county health departments.

But for months, JCEA members have voiced their concerns about a return to in-person schooling, including at an Aug. 4 rally outside the Jeffco Public Schools Education Center, 1829 Denver West Dr. There, teachers did not give an exact date for when they believe an in-person return to school would be safe, but said they feel additional data on pandemic case numbers and more widespread testing should precede an in-person return.

“We want to go back to our classrooms as they were in early March. (But) if we cannot prevent the occasional classroom outbreak of lice, how can we contain something we cannot see?” Elizabeth Kantner, an Arvada High School math teacher, said at the rally.

The district should “include educators in the process of a safe start to schools,” she said, echoing fellow teachers. “We are the ones who have firsthand knowledge of what works and what is wishful thinking.”

The union’s goal has consistently been to ensure the district is weighing teachers’ voices fairly as it determines what the Jeffco restart will look like, according to Brooke Williams, JCEA president.

MORE: Ongoing negotiations leaves potential raises for teachers uncertain

On Aug. 6, Williams said the JCEA met with district leaders to schedule its next bargaining session. During the session, JCEA intends to ask the district to consider creating a committee of community members, such as parents and members of JCEA, and district leaders to take over the restart plan process.

“We’re trying to get a committee that will make these decisions based on cases, science and what’s really going on,” Williams said. “We want to make sure it’s a transparent (process).”

Families uncertain

The call for change comes at a time when many Jeffco parents have struggled with ongoing uncertainty, including their own uncertainties of what road to choose for their students.

Susan Carter Ruskell, a Wheat Ridge High School parent, previously told Colorado Community Media that with the July 23 update, she and her 11th grade daughter felt more comfortable about the idea of returning in-person, thanks to the change to a hybrid schedule for secondary students.

That said, Carter Ruskell said she still had concerns about how schools would handle grouping students and managing outbreaks. Overall, however, she felt the changes better reflected teachers’ input than the original July 8 plan did.

“I hope district administration will do a better job moving forward of considering the actual frontline workers’ concerns,” she said.

Other parents, like Tho Truong, have praised the district’s approach to balancing input from all sides, saying that while no plan can be ideal because of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, the current plan is the best option for students.

“I believe Jeffco has listened to the teachers’ concerns and is doing its best to maximize safety. It really cannot do more and having kids go without some sort of in-person schooling for one to two years is less realistic for our society than coaching kids to do the right thing and pulling this off,” Truong said. “I am disappointed in a sort of false dichotomy that is out there: that the risk has to be near zero or no in-person school is possible.”

As of Aug. 6, the union and district had not yet set a date for their next bargaining session but had plans to hold at least one more session prior to the start of the school year.

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