Rising COVID cases prompt Denver district to retreat from in-person learning for older elementary students

An empty classroom with chairs upside down on desks.
Faced with rising COVID cases, Denver Public Schools is shifting more students online. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In a change driven by rising COVID cases, all but the youngest students in Colorado’s largest school district will be learning online at least through the end of November and many will be online through the end of the semester.

Less than a week after returning most elementary students to the classroom, Denver Public Schools has decided that students in grades 3 through 5 should learn from home until after the Thanksgiving break, Chalkbeat confirmed Tuesday afternoon. These older elementary students will be able to go to school through Friday and start learning remotely Monday. 

“I am heartbroken that we are here,” Superintendent Susana Cordova wrote in a message to parents announcing the plans later Tuesday. “I believe that our efforts to gradually reopen our school buildings and educate and care for our children has been the right thing to do, and at the same time, it is clear that we need to balance this with the needs of our community to drive the COVID rates down.”

Students in kindergarten through second grade will continue learning at school, as will recently arrived immigrant students and students with disabilities who attend center-based programs in all grades. The district will also continue to offer a limited number of seats in remote learning centers.

District officials said they want to continue to offer in-person learning for the youngest and most vulnerable students who have the hardest time engaging in online learning. 

Middle and high school students, most of whom have been remote since the start of the school year in August, will stay online until the end of the semester Dec. 18. The district previously had planned to bring those students back Nov. 9.

Denver Public Schools made the change after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said the city would move to increased restrictions on the state’s dial system. Level 3 is the last level before returning to “stay at home,” and Bob McDonald, director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, warned that if the trajectory doesn’t change soon, the city again will revert to a lockdown.

Level 3 requires restaurants, retail businesses, and offices to operate at reduced capacity. The city also limits social gatherings to no more than five people from no more than two households, a lower cap than the state’s.

At Level 3, state public health guidelines for K-12 schools say that remote or hybrid learning models are “suggested,” with “limited in-person as appropriate,” but the state ultimately leaves the decision up to school districts. Even in the “stay at home” phase, remote learning is “suggested.”

Adams County, north of Denver, also moved into Level 3 this week. In the lead up to that change, the Adams 14 district decided to stay remote, Adams 12 Five Star Schools moved its middle and high school students remote, and Aurora Public Schools moved all students except those in preschool and kindergarten back to learning at home. But other districts in the county, including Westminster Public Schools, Mapleton Public Schools, and the Brighton-based District 27J, are continuing with in-person learning.

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In a letter shared with Mapleton parents Tuesday, Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio said that despite rising cases in the community, transmission within school buildings between students and staff has been kept to a minimum. 

“While the transmission rates within the larger Adams County are increasing, we can be proud that we are not seeing transmissions happen within our schools,” Cianco wrote. “Our layers of protection are working. Our collaboration with Tri-County [Public Health] is working. Our contact tracing and quarantining are working.”

According to the most recent data available, there have been 43 outbreaks — instances in which public health officials identified transmission between students or staff in school settings — among the more than 1,900 schools in Colorado since school started in August.

Information from school openings around the United States suggest that elementary schools can operate relatively safely, but experts caution there is still a lot we don’t know.

Denver was one of the first Colorado school districts to decide to start the school year remotely, with a plan to bring students back to the classroom in October if case counts remained low. Instead, the district may have missed the window when it had the lowest community transmission rates by not bringing students back in August. Cases have risen steadily since Labor Day, even as the districts announced plans first to bring back preschool students and then phase in the rest of elementary students. 

The district completed the phased return of the roughly two-thirds of elementary students whose parents chose in-person school by Oct. 21, after the fall break.

The district had struggled to come up with a plan that would allow most secondary students to return to the classroom by insisting on small cohorts that would limit interactions among more than 35 students. District leaders want to avoid frequent quarantines and the disruption they bring.

Denver’s decision reflects both the rising case count in the city and the health concerns of teachers, a majority of whom told the administration they don’t feel safe teaching in person. Both the principals and teachers unions have called on the district to set a clear threshold for when all learning would take place remotely, a step the district has been reluctant to take.

Over the weekend, all three metrics on the district’s COVID dashboard turned red, the most concerning level, prompting additional conversations with public health officials, teachers, and principals about how to respond.

In explaining the decision at each grade level, Cordova said the youngest learners have the hardest time engaging remotely.

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“These are our developing readers, and in-person support is absolutely critical to ensuring they are getting a solid foundation for their education,” she wrote in the parent message, adding that the safety risk to young children is also lowest.

Cordova said the “overall community trend” contributed to the decision to move older elementary students to remote learning. While these children benefit from in-person instruction, she said, the district has been able to improve remote learning more for them.

The district will reassess health conditions leading up to Thanksgiving and make a decision about whether to bring older elementary students back.

Committing to remote learning for middle and high school students will allow teachers to focus on improving the quality of instruction, Cordova said.

At the same time, “health conditions are unlikely to improve enough before the end of the semester to allow for safe, in-person schooling in our middle and high schools,” she wrote.

Cesar Rivera, co-president of the Denver School Leaders Association, the union representing principals, said the change to remote learning for most students still leaves questions about staff safety unanswered, especially if cases continue to rise in the community.

“The hard truth is that we are asking school staff to work with and live with risk that have never asked of them before,” he said. Staff who work with young students may carry that risk long-term, he added.

The district’s Facebook page quickly filled with comments from teachers of younger students angry at the decision. Some parents said they understood the district faced difficult choices, while others said they were deeply disappointed.

“The choice we made for our kids to go to school has been taken away, and they deserve better than this,” one parent said.

Cordova said the district is trying to strike a difficult balance between serving the students in school who have the most need while providing high-quality remote instruction.

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“There is real fear, anxiety and concern on all sides, regardless of where you stand on this issue — parents and students who desperately want their children to be in school, teachers and leaders who are concerned about their health and safety,” she wrote. “There is no easy answer.”

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed to this report.

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