Denver Public Schools will begin Thanksgiving break a day earlier than planned so employees can devote time to their health and self-care, while also giving students an opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Superintendent Alex Marrero made the announcement Wednesday following a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education and hearing testimonies from teachers, staff, parents and students about the challenges this year has presented.

"I hear from teachers saying, 'We love to be here, but we feel like it's March," Marrero said at a news conference. "Meaning the March fatigue is setting in on our teachers because of the heavy lift. The heavy lift comes with everything that is post-pandemic, and responding to well beyond the scope of their work."

Staffing shortages combined with the district's attempt to get students vaccinated were the driving factors to close schools next Friday, Marrero said.

Families are encouraged to take advantage of the free day to get their child vaccinated against COVID-19.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, applauded the district for prioritizing the health and wellness of its teachers and staff.

"We need to have awareness around the need to address the mental health needs of not only our students, but our educators," she said, adding that "when you have those feelings (of being exhausted and overwhelmed), its hard to do your best in your place of work." 

Earlier Wednesday, in an email to teachers, Marrero described the year as "stressful and draining." He also acknowledged the difficulties staffing shortages have created.

Additionally, more teachers are calling in sick more frequently because of COVID-19-related issues. The district only has around 400 substitutes available, which is more than 800 less than a traditional year, said Lacey Nelson, the district's director of talent acquisition.

Other hourly positions within the district such as bus drivers, food staff, school nurses and custodians are lower than normal. The shortages have forced the district to transition three of its schools to remote learning this week. 

Staffing issues are impacting districts across the state and nation. Adams 14 School District and the Boulder Valley School District recently announced school will be canceled districtwide Friday because of staffing issues. 

In Denver, George Washington High School transitioned online on Wednesday and will continue with remote learning for the remainder of the week. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College and John H. Ames Elementary School will go remote Thursday and Friday. 

Although three schools are temporarily transitioning to remote learning, Marrero said this will not be a regular occurrence. 

"This is not something we are planning to do regularly," Marrero said. "Parents should be prepared and flexible just like we are, but it's not an expectation."

In an attempt to avoid future closures, the district has raised the daily wages for substitutes between 4% and 8% per day, but the pay varies from person to person, Nelson said. 

DPS's schools and offices will be closed Nov. 19. However, the district's charter schools could remain open and Marrero encouraged parents to reach out to their individual schools. 

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