Coronavirus, Education, Exclusives, Featured, Greeley, Original Report, Sherrie Peif

As students go back to school, some teachers using masks to send ideological messages

GREELEY — As thousands of children head back to school, school districts across the state are dealing with much more than simply reading, writing and arithmetic. The new stresses on school districts include whether to wear a mask or not wear a mask, whether to be in person or via zoom, how to convince parents to keep their children at home when they run fevers, and how to keep kids six feet apart from each other, among other things.

However, districts will likely start dealing with other issues, as changes to the normal teaching process now include masks worn by staff members, and in some cases, staff who are using those masks to deliver messages that not all agree with.

Several teachers at Greeley West High School contacted Complete Colorado when they noticed a fellow teacher wearing a Black Lives Matter (BLM) mask at the school in previous weeks as they prepared the building to welcome students back.

“It feels like a political statement,” said one teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of how it would be perceived by other teachers. “It’s pushing a personal bias/agenda.”

Complete Colorado will also not identify the teacher in question.

Complete Colorado contacted the school district about its stance on the issue, and at this time, it appears the district has no intention of setting parameters around the messages teachers can send using their masks. Initially, Theresa Myers, the district’s communication director said she didn’t believe there was anything the district could do because “technically” it fit within their dress codes.

“I can tell you masks for students will have to adhere to the student dress code,” she said.

That student code is much more robust than that for the staff, it includes everything from banning certain colors and logos to numbers and other messaging. It is unclear if Black Lives Matter, or other messages, would be acceptable under student dress codes.

Complete Colorado found four policies within the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education system that could potentially address staff masks. When pressed further about policies, Myers then said it was a First Amendment issue.

“This does not violate any staff dress code, but we never anticipated staff having to wear masks in our dress code,” she said. “And while some view this as a political issue, some view this as a civil rights/equity/social justice issue.”

Myers said she had not received any complaints about the Black Lives Matter mask, but said there is someone wearing a Blue Lives Matters facial covering that she had received complaints about.

“I just wish as adults, if someone was offended by this, that they would have a conversation with their co-worker and maybe it could be a learning moment for them both,” Myers said. “As you can imagine during this time of extreme stress and national unrest, people are very elevated in their reactions to things. We are trying to be kind and give people grace in this unprecedented time. If the teachers are truly offended and can’t have a conversation with the person, they can contact the HR department and file a complaint.”

However, the teachers that contacted Complete Colorado were clear they could not identify themselves or go to administration because they had no doubt they would get backlash from their peers and administration if they complained.

Although District 6 Superintendent Deirdre Pilch initially offered to discuss the issue with Complete Colorado, she was unable to find time, citing a packed schedule. Complete Colorado attempted to reach Pilch by cell phone but has since learned it had a wrong phone number. Pilch was unaware of the attempt.  Pilch did say through Myers that the mask issue was not a priority.

“Right now, we are focused on getting schools open,” Pilch said. “We are not taking a stand right now on masks people may wear that could be construed as political. If it becomes an issue in schools, and if it becomes disruptive, then we will deal with it.”

Other superintendents contacted by Complete Colorado said they do view the Black Lives Matter message among those that could be seen as political, adding they hadn’t addressed the issue yet, but would likely have to in the coming weeks as they also expect there could be issues in their respective districts.

Adams 27J Superintendent Chris Fiedler, who leads just under 20,000 students and nearly 1,000 teachers in the district that sits east of Interstate 25 and roughly between 168th Avenue on the north and 64th Avenue on the south, mostly in the Brighton area, pointed to a 1969 United States Supreme Court Decision that allows students First Amendment rights so long as it does not disrupt the educational process. He said it’s not so clear for teachers.

“Because they are our employees, we can decide what they can and can’t wear in terms of political messaging.” Fiedler said. “I can see the point that it’s a social justice issue, but it is highly politicized. And it’s one of those things we will have to look at as we bring kids back to school. They really should be neutral in how they dress.”

Brad Miller, a Colorado Springs-based attorney who specializes in education law, said school districts have a right to define appropriate messaging. Miller said he has met with several schools and districts already about this very subject and how to handle the issue before it causes a distraction to student learning.

Miller said there is case law already in Colorado that addresses these types of policies.

“If you allow them to have one type of message, then you have to allow another type,” he said adding the BLM messaging opens the door to allowing Make America Great Again (MAGA) masks, which some could argue are political, but others would say is simply patriotic. “You can’t say yes to one side and then no to another. School boards can deny them the right to have anything that is disruptive or has ideological messaging.”

Miller said school boards are charged with addressing the professionalism of its staff members.

“They can absolutely prohibit them from allowing a MAGA or a BLM mask,” Miller said. “Schools really have a priority in managing environment so that messaging doesn’t become a distraction.”

The Highland Re-9 School District superintendent is facing a different kind of mask issue as the approximately 1,000-student district in Ault prepares to go back to school 100 percent in person for K-12.

“Our message to our teachers was to make a personal choice and mind your own business about others,” Robert Ring said. “If you want to wear one made out of t-shirt, fine. If you want to wear an N95, fine. We will respect that. But if someone doesn’t want to wear one, we will respect that, too. You don’t get to tell me how to think, and I’m not going to tell you how to think.”

Ring said he has much more on his plate to worry about than whether a teacher chooses to wear a mask.

“There has been no school for six months. Some students have had no instruction or stimulation,” Ring said. “Students are in such need of instruction and learning and achievement, I don’t want to fight about it.”

Ring did say that although he doesn’t think will ever need to discuss political messages on masks, he is prepared to do so if it comes up.

“We have a general statement about disrupting the process,” Ring said. “I’m sure that would apply, but if we felt like it wasn’t strong enough, that would be the first action at the next board meeting. I’m sure my board would modify it to support me on that.”

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