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Recent Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley teacher union surveys show teachers are feeling anxiety about returning to in-person school in the fall.

Boulder Valley plans to return to school the week of Aug. 24 with a mix of online and in-person learning and mandatory mask-wearing for all students and employees. The hybrid schedule includes Monday as a planning day for teachers, while students would work independently that day.

St. Vrain Valley plans to return to school on Aug. 18, also with a a mix of online and in-person learning and mandatory mask-wearing for all students and employees. The hybrid schedule includes students attending two days a week plus every other Friday in person and learning from home the remaining days.

For both districts, the hybrid plan splits a school’s students into two groups for in-person learning, cutting class sizes at least in half to allow for social distancing. Students also have the option of attending online only, which officials say should further reduce in-person class sizes.

About 90% of Boulder Valley teachers who responded to a recent survey feel “a great deal” or “some” anxiety about returning to work in person, while 66% would prefer to return to work remotely.

Concerns included safe social distancing in classrooms, students not wearing face coverings, loss of leave time or pay from contracting coronavirus and parents sending sick kids to school.

About 1,030 Boulder Valley teacher union members responded to the survey, which was open from July 13 to July 17. The survey was given before Boulder Valley announced its plans to start with a hybrid model. The Boulder Valley Education Association is planning a second survey on the hybrid model, according to President Terri Mulford.

In St. Vrain Valley, responses to the union’s survey were received both before and after the district announced its hybrid learning plan last week. About 765 teachers had responded to the survey as of Sunday.

Of those, 78% said they were very or somewhat uncomfortable with returning to work this school year.

About 45% said they would prefer to start fully online, while 29% want to start with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning at all grade levels. Another 16% preferred to start with full-day classes for elementary, sixth and ninth grades, which was the district’s previous plan. About 7% wanted to start with in-person classes for all grades.

David Frick, who teachers freshman English and AP Literature at Longmont’s Skyline High School, said the biggest concern for teachers is what happens if they contract COVID-19 and are sick for an extended period.

Even with an extra 10 days of sick leave provided through federal coronavirus relief, he said, there may not be enough days for a long illness. New teachers receive seven days of sick leave, while the rest of the teachers have 11 days.

“I’m concerned about the financial burden to any family or caregiver if somebody gets sick,” he said.

Other concerns include specifics in the district’s plans around air flow and filters, the availability of coronavirus testing for teachers and the length of time teachers will spend in enclosed spaces with students. Though he plans to return to in-person teaching under the current plan, he said, he’s hoping for changes.

“I don’t feel like they’ve adequately protected teachers and students,” he said. “I feel very uncomfortable with the current plan.”

Last week, according to Chalkbeat Colorado, leaders from state’s largest teachers union pushed for all schools to start remotely this fall. A recent survey of nearly 10,000 educators by the Colorado Education Association found that more than half want to start the school year remotely, according to Chalkbeat.

Rebecca Laverdure, a Louisville Elementary teacher and the union representative for the school, sent a letter to the school board Monday on behalf of the school’s teachers asking the district to start the school year remotely instead of with a hybrid.

Eighty percent of teachers would feel most comfortable returning to school remotely, she wrote, noting the current increase in cases and the likelihood of increased exposure when students must attend outside childcare in a hybrid model.

She added teachers are “extremely sensitive to the need for students to return to school for their social-emotional health, the working demands of their parents, and the equity issues for our students who are most vulnerable.”

To meet the needs of those vulnerable students, she wrote, many teachers would feel comfortable teaching small groups of 10 to 12 students five days a week, limiting exposure while providing support for students who most need in-person learning.

“We are in a global pandemic and need to think beyond traditional structures to address the many needs of the various stakeholders,” she wrote.

Both Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley are offering exemptions to teaching in-person to teachers who are 65 or older or who have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk. Boulder Valley is offering the same exemption to teachers who live with someone who falls into that category.

St. Vrain Valley Superintendent Don Haddad said about 60 teachers so far have received exemptions from in-person learning because of age or health conditions. Classified employees who work directly with students will have the same option to request an exemption, he said.

He said every school included teachers on its reopening committees, while he meets regularly with the St. Vrain Valley Education Association president to collaboratively find solutions. The district and the union this week finalized the details of no-cost childcare options for teachers, for example, he said.

“We never roll anything out without lots and lots of feedback from teachers and our staff,” he said.

He said he understands the anxiety for both teachers and families around the return to school and promised to work through issues with both groups.

“We’re taking a lot of precautionary measures,” he said. “There’s never a way to mitigate risk 100%, but we have done everything we can possibly do in accordance with the health department guidance.”

Steve Villarrealc, St. Vrain Valley Education Association president, mirrored Haddad’s comments.

“We constantly are in talks with the district in adjusting the plan, accommodating teachers needs and making sure students are safe,” he said. “We really are trying to do what’s best for our teachers. This is everybody’s first pandemic. There is a steep learning curve for everybody.”

In Boulder Valley, spokesman Randy Barber said, the district so far has approved 260 teacher exemptions from in-person learning for those 65 or older or with health conditions or who live with someone in those categories. With about 1,700 teachers total, about 15% of teachers have requested exemptions.

Another 15 teachers also have requested a leave of absence, Barber said. The district expects to send out information about exemptions to its “classified” staff members, including paraeducators, custodians and bus drivers, this week.

Barber added the district will provide additional sick leave for teachers who exhaust both the federal relief days and their personal sick leave.

“The plan is not to have them take unpaid leave,” he said.

In an episode last week of Boulder Valley’s “Let’s Talk Education” program, Superintendent Rob Anderson said the district has “work to do” to make sure employees feel safe returning to in-person education.

“We’ve been handling so much complicated information, coming at us so quickly with not much time to react, it hasn’t provided the space to engage our teachers in the way I think they deserve,” he said. “We need to continue to work together to find ways to feel safe coming back.”

The district recently added an employee-only forum on its online engagement platform, Let’s Talk BVSD. District leaders also are working closely with the teachers union leadership on reintroduction plans, Barber said.

“We’re constantly in communication,” he said.

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