As COVID cases rise in Adams 14 community, students will keep learning from home

Student wearing headphones sits at a table with a laptop.

Adams 14 students will all continue learning online through Dec. 17 when winter break begins.

The district school board voted Tuesday night to continue remote learning, citing concerns about skyrocketing COVID-19 rates in the Adams 14 community. The board also urged the community to help lower the rates by following guidelines to avoid large gatherings and to wear masks. 

Other school districts that also had started the year virtually have begun to bring students back into school buildings, many using hybrid schedules, especially at higher grade levels. But rising rates of COVID in Denver and Adams County have raised alarm, including at the state level. 

The Denver school district now plans to reopen middle and high schools on Nov. 9 at the earliest, instead of on Oct. 21. And the Aurora school district is now closely watching data to see if it may have to return to remote learning just after returning to in-person instruction this week.

According to data from the Tri-County Health Department, which recently began breaking out cases by school district boundaries, Adams 14 numbers place the Commerce City-based district in high-risk categories for reopening.

As of Tuesday, the Adams 14 area’s two-week test positivity rate was at 13.02% and the incidence rate measuring new cases was at 394.54 per 100,000 and rising. 

The district measured the numbers against a state dial that guides counties to different phases of reopening. The Adams 14 positivity rate places the district in an orange, fourth-highest level of restrictions, while the incidence rate places the district in the red, strictest phase of closures.

Adams 14 Superintendent Don Rangel on Tuesday also gave the board an alternate proposal which would have allowed students to return to school classrooms by the end of October, using a hybrid model of alternating days for older students.

But board members worried that trying to bring students back to in-person learning under those conditions would be short lived either because students would have to be sent home frequently for quarantine as cases arise, or because the county might order schools to close if cases keep rising. 

“Our students are learning at home remotely and while it might not be the learning that they would receive if our district was in person, they are learning and they have established a routine,” said board President Ramona Lewis. “We all agree that in-person learning is the best for our students, but I do have fears that if we make the move now to in-person learning, students may experience frequent learning disruptions.”

In the proposal to bring students back, the district noted that Tri-County health officials have stated, and evidence suggests, “COVID-19 transmission is more likely to occur in the community vs. in a school-based setting.” The district also assured in the recommendation that it would be prepared to open, following guidelines to keep students and staff safe.

Some board members raised concerns about those plans, including large class sizes. Teachers and parents have also been raising concerns about the district’s plan to keep students and staff safe in buildings, including raising questions about the ability to have proper ventilation in the district’s older buildings. 

Adams 14 has said that it is focusing on increasing the amount of outdoor air into its classrooms, while also changing filters on a rotating schedule. The district’s systems cannot handle the MERV 13-rated filters that guidelines recommend, so the district has also purchased air purifiers for classrooms.

Alicia Rodriguez, a mother of two Adams 14 students including one who has special needs and is at higher risk for serious illness, said Wednesday she is glad the district is staying in remote learning.

“Even if the district decided they are going to go back, I’m not going to send my kids,” Rodriguez said. “It’s been a little hard but everything is hard even if the kids go to schools.”

For her son with special needs, Rodriguez doubts he would wear a mask properly all day, and worries that he wouldn’t understand why he would be asked to keep a distance from friends.

Among comments posted during the meeting, teachers, parents, and community members mostly thanked the board for the decision, although some raised concerns about student learning. While losses in student learning have been a concern in districts across the country, the stakes in Adams 14 are higher as the district remains under a state deadline to dramatically improve student achievement. 

Concerns about student learning include concerns about equity. Across the country, students of color are more likely to be learning virtually, which for many students is not the optimal learning environment. Some experts worry that this will widen achievement gaps. 

About 91% of Adams 14 students are students of color, including a majority who are Hispanic and from low-income households. About half of students are also English learners.

The Hispanic population in Colorado has also been one of the most impacted by COVID-19. 

Several board members, including some with family members who have suffered from COVID, said they have lost sleep weighing whether to extend remote learning.

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