Fears over whether El Paso County schools can be reopened safely next month continued to build Wednesday, with several dozen teachers voicing concerns during a protest at an El Paso County Public Health board meeting.

The teachers — members of the Pikes Peak Education Association, an advocacy and professional organization for educators from 24 school districts in the region — gathered outside Centennial Hall in Colorado Springs, holding signs and banners in support of the health department creating detailed pandemic requirements for schools before classes resume.

So far, El Paso County's COVID-19 guidance has outlined recommendations for schools, including social distancing, wearing face masks and wellness screenings. On Monday, the state released draft guidance for schools, including social distancing for some age groups and the division of students into small "cohorts" with limited teacher rotation. Masks will be mandated for those 11 and older and recommended for all ages, state officials said at a Monday news conference. The state will not require that social distancing be implemented for elementary school students.

The protesting teachers supported safety recommendations but said that, in some cases, they could be impossible follow without a hybrid in-person and online model, citing concerns over class sizes. 

They called on the El Paso County Public Health board members to implement direct oversight so that schools can't pick and choose what guidelines to follow. They said they want to see public health officials require a maximum number of students per 100 square feet, free testing for educators and for schools to publicly post online positive cases for each building. 

Their demands, though, might have been better directed to the governor since the county health department doesn't have the authority to do more than issue guidelines for schools, a spokeswoman said. Anything more would require a state mandate that schools would have to have their reopening plans approved by local health departments, which Gov. Jared Polis has not indicated he plans to issue.

Challenger Middle School teacher Cari Fox, president of Academy District 20's teachers association, said if the health department did not issue requirements instead of guidelines, districts would cherry-pick which safety guidelines to follow, and that the lack of accountability is unacceptable. She would like to see public health officials inspect schools for safety in the same way they are inspected by fire departments.

"You are essentially sending students and educators back to the same overcrowded, underfunded public education institutions," she said.

Middle school band director Lisa Smith got choked up as she addressed the El Paso County Public Health board members in a mask and a face shield and informed them that was how she planned to teach to help reduce her own risk because she must stand in front of students who will be blowing into their instruments.

She also told the board that the recommended social distance of 6 feet between students could not be achieved in her room.

"I have been in my room all summer trying to stack chairs to figure out how I can make it work and I don’t know how," she said.

She predicted that the spread of coronavirus in schools is inevitable.

"It will be several days before many teachers are out sick, and we can’t be replaced," she said.

Fox said she recently surveyed the association's nearly 300 members. Out of the approximately 175 who responded, around 70% said they were concerned about returning to classrooms.

"We want consistency. We want safety. We want a voice. We want equity," she said, adding that if the statewide teachers union were to take action, "teachers in D-20 will likely join."

The D-20 board will hold a virtual meeting Thursday that will be streamed online. A district spokeswoman said no new information was expected on the reopening plan, which was released last week and gives parents the option of classroom or distance learning. The district hopes to clarify its return-to-school plan by Friday, she said.

"Our plan may never be 'final' because we must be responsive to the spread of COVID-19 within our community," Allison Cortez, the district's director of communications, said. "We therefore continue to work closely with the El Paso County Health Department, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment."

For a meeting link and to submit comments go to www.asd20.org/board-of-education/board-meetings.

A Facebook post by the district earlier this week announcing its return-to-school plan drew nearly 600 comments. Responses were split, reflecting some parents' support for the district's response, while others expressed confusion and anger.

"Thank you for making the best of this tough situation," one woman commented. "I'm glad you're giving families options for what works best for everyone's specific circumstances."

"I understand and can appreciate the difficulty in navigating this situation, however, this does not feel like a plan," another woman commented. "It feels like the district is passing the buck to the principals. Classrooms are already crowded. How is social-distancing even an option?"

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@JessySnouwaert

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