DENVER — It’s an interesting question: Is in-person school essential?
If you ask single mom Hazel Gibson, there is no doubt.
“I would say for some families it is,” Gibson said. “It is essential. Unfortunately, that is the way we as a society have made it.”
Gibson has a daughter going into 3rd grade and a son with special needs starting kindergarten in Denver Public Schools.
“He does need special services,” Gibson said of her son. “He does need assistance. And I’m definitely not qualified to give that to him.”
So, for her, the DPS model of all online learning through mid-October presents a huge challenge.
“As a parent, as a single mom, it’s incredibly hard,” Gibson said. “I feel trapped. I feel like I can’t plan. You’ve got parents that are trying to work and put food on the table, that have to work.”
Many say school is not just an educational platform, but also childcare for essential workers, in effect, making school essential.
West High teacher Daniel Walter sees a lot of that.
“It’s a place for kids to be so that their parents can work,” Walter said. “And that is absolutely true.”
Single mom Renee Vasquez is among those.
“It’s a lot,” Vasquez said. “It’s too much. I don’t have time for that. I can’t get home and do all this.”
Her daughter, Juleesa, struggled with the online model last spring.
“I even cried a couple times just because one of my teachers was piling on work and work and work and I just couldn’t handle it,” Juleesa said.
She was a straight-A student and fears her grades will tank the longer the online model continues.
“It was just so stressful and I just felt like I didn’t learn anything,” she said. “I don’t remember what I learned.”
Her mom is an essential worker for a local hospital and tries to lend as much support as she can.
“It’s too much stress for the kids,” Vasquez said. “Too much stress for us parents because we have to jump in there and as a parent who has the 9-to-5 work schedule, it’s hard.”
Fortunately, Juleesa has teachers like Walter who understand it’s hard.
“Just for them to do what they need to do in terms of them logging in,” Walter said. “Namely, taking care of younger siblings if one or more parents have to do service industry jobs where they can’t stay at home.”
Steve Smith teaches 6th through 8th grade special education at Lake Middle School near Sloan's Lake in Denver.
Smith believes each school should decide for itself what to do.
“One idea that I have is to have certain teachers who want to volunteer to go back to serve cohorts of kids of maybe 10-12,” Smith said. “I would feel comfortable being in a classroom full of 10-12 students, or in a cafeteria full of 60 kids with five teachers. I think what we need is to treat it with the nuance that it deserves.”
On the question of essentiality, Kim Siffring agrees.
“We are,” Siffring said. “We are essential.”
Siffring is the director of Montview Community Preschool and Kindergarten in Denver. The school is planning to start on-time with full in-person learning the day after Labor Day.
“Thirty percent of our parents answered that question as ‘Yes,’ they do use our preschool as part of their childcare needs,” Siffring said.
With the guidance of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the state licensing board and the governor, Siffring believes a safe return is possible.
“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think we could do it in a really safe way,” she said. “And that’s really the priority of Montview. To focus on that social/emotional development of young children.”
But they also gave teachers the option to return or not.
“Any teacher that wanted to could take one year sabbatical without pay and then come back next year in the exact position they left,” Siffring said. “And we’ve had three teachers taking us up on that.”
That’s Smith’s argument for DPS and other districts; allow the teachers who want to come back to teach, starting with the most vulnerable groups of cohorts.
“The notion that kids are automatically safer at home, isn’t necessarily true for all students,” Smith said. “We know they’re eating less because they don’t get the free breakfast, the free lunch. We know that abuse rates are up.”
“This is incredibly difficult, but as teachers, I think we all know what burden we took on when we signed up to become teachers,” Walter said.
And that brings us back to Gibson, who still isn’t sure how she’ll balance it all.
“I have no clue,” Gibson said.
What she does recognize is the sacrifice of teachers.
“I was raised by a single mom,” Gibson said. “Teachers saved my life. They changed my life. This is not about me disrespecting what they do and me wanting them to put their lives on the line. This is about, 'I don’t know how to put food on the table if I don’t work.'”
Smith says not being in school will be a huge detriment and set-back for some kids.
“Over 3 out of 5 of our kids are either in government housing, homeless or in foster care,” Smith said. “They’re estimating that not being in school will increase the achievement gap between 10 and 15%. That’s not acceptable. Public schools need to step-up.”
Walter agrees – the current plan will simply magnify inequities.
“In the end, we’re here for the students – no matter how tough it gets,” Walter said. “An educated populous is the key to the survival of our species.”
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