Teachers expressing concerns about classroom return as Roaring Fork Schools set to announce back-to-school plans on Friday

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Editor’s note: This story has been revised from an earlier version to include additional teachers union representative comments and clarify the concerns being expressed about returning to the classroom.

Roaring Fork School District teachers ideally would prefer to be in the classroom teaching students when school starts back up next month, but seriously question whether that can be done safely given the potential for spread of the novel coronavirus, the local teachers’ union representative said Tuesday.

“We did a survey of our members, and presented that to our IBB (Interest-Based Bargaining) group,” said Rhonda Tatham, president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association (RFCEA), which represents about 200 member teachers in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

“We are working with the district to make sure our voice is heard,” Tatham said. “Teachers want to be in the classroom, but they want to be there safely.”

Given the public health practices that would need to be followed to accomplish that, and the burden that could fall on teachers to make sure those rules are adhered to, that may not be possible, she and other representatives of the RFCEA said ahead of a planned district announcement Friday on plans to start the new school year.

“The biggest concern we are hearing now from teachers is safety,” said Rob Norville, vice president of the local teachers union and a science teacher at Glenwood Springs High School.

“We want to make sure that the school district is making decisions based on sound science, not political pressure or pressure from the community, just to get back to normal…,” Norville said.

The RFCEA is the Roaring Fork Schools’ affiliate of the Colorado Education Association.

The CEA on Tuesday delivered a petition to Gov. Jared Polis and state Education Commissioner Katy Anthes outlining expectations for a safe return to school this fall, amid ongoing concerns about spread of the novel coronavirus.

A statewide survey of nearly 10,000 union members indicated that eight in 10 teachers would be “willing to join their colleagues in refusing to return to work” if certain conditions aren’t met.

The CEA survey also found that 53% of respondents prefer remote-only teaching, while only 8% prefer in-person-only instruction.

Locally, a separate survey was conducted last week by the RFCEA, given the current public health concerns and a recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases within the school district. It found that 58.2% of members prefer starting the year with distance learning, 24.6% prefer a hybrid approach using both distance learning and limited face-to-face teaching, and 17.2% prefer face-to-face.

One option for the Roaring Fork Schools is some mix of both in-person and online instruction.

The local district intends to announce its proposed plans for the fall semester on Friday. The Roaring Fork school board is then set to meet next week to discuss and approve the plan.

An update sent out in the district’s July newsletter to parents and the community summarized the district’s planning process in determining how to proceed.

The decision largely depends on the latest information about the COVID-19 outbreak locally, risk factors and guidance from public health officials.

On the table is either a full return to face-to-face learning if the risk of disease spread is low, a hybrid model that would include a mix of classroom and online instruction if there’s a moderate risk of spread, or, if the risk of virus spread is too high, an “improved” distance learning model based on student, staff and parent feedback.

The neighboring Garfield District Re-2 school board decided Monday that in-classroom instruction will resume for schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle, but a week later than originally planned, on Aug. 24, and with safety measures including a face mask requirement.

Roaring Fork Schools are currently scheduled to start the new school year on Aug. 17.

Tatham said she believes that, with a good social distancing plan, mask requirements, adequate cleaning of school buildings and following CDC guidelines, classroom instruction could be possible. But that’s a lot to ask of teachers and school building staff, she said.

Much will hinge on the district’s plans to make sure facilities are kept clean, and that the burden doesn’t fall on classroom teachers, she said.

“Teachers need to be teaching. We can’t be cleaning,” said Tatham, who is a special education teacher at Carbondale Middle School.

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