Aurora schools will stop limited in-person instruction

An Aurora teacher wearing a mask points at a screen as students watch.
Aurora’s limited in-person instruction will stop at fall break. (Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)

Reversing their superintendent’s decision, Aurora school board members voted Tuesday night to suspend all in-person learning through the end of the semester.

The change applies to students who have remained in-person even as most others in the district have been learning online. Those include preschool and kindergarten students, as well as limited numbers of students with special needs, those who are new immigrants learning English, and those who are taking specific technical career courses. 

The switch to remote learning will not happen immediately, but at Thanksgiving break, giving families time to plan for alternative child care.

Board members made the decision 6 to 1, with board member Debbie Gerkin voting against the change. Most board members cited “raging” COVID spread in the community, and particularly voiced concern for staff who continue to work in person.

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn had sent out an announcement to families this week stating remote learning would continue the rest of 2020 for most students. But as has been the case for the last several weeks, students who have been identified as having higher needs, and more trouble learning online, would still be offered some in-person instruction. 

Munn defended that plan, asking the board to consider equity.

“What we have is a situation where we have different students who have different needs, and in that circumstance, equity is about responding to those different needs,” Munn said. “It’s not about each of us doing the same thing.”

Most board members questioned why the health concerns of having students in schools were applied only in some cases. Teachers and their union have also raised concerns about the higher risk that some teachers must face.

“I understand, superintendent, what you say about equity and needing to serve those populations, but that equity conversation also comes into play with people’s health,” said board member Nichelle Ortiz.

Board member Kevin Cox also pointed out that the school district’s communities that are already facing the highest levels of poverty are the ones that are most impacted by COVID-19.

Munn told board members that the district had confidence in being able to keep schools safe in the cases where it offered to continue in-person learning.

Public health officials and district leaders in Colorado have often said that data shows schools may be safer than the larger community, citing lower transmission rates between staff and students, as compared to rates for the general public. But public health officials have also admitted that available data is limited and cannot answer whether community spread is influenced by school reopenings or not.

Still, several school districts have scaled back in-person learning in recent weeks, citing ongoing community spread, and the challenge of offering students a consistent education when so many have to be quarantined so often. Like Aurora, Denver Public Schools has kept schools open for the youngest elementary students, as well as newcomers and those with significant disabilities, even as all others learn remotely. The district has faced similar pushback from teachers who are nervous about continuing to work in school buildings.

Aurora’s tense discussion Tuesday followed an ongoing issue the district has faced as board members have frequently been at odds with the district superintendent over reopening plans.

Board President Kayla Armstrong-Romero also accused the superintendent during the meeting of failing to communicate with the board before sending out the announcement Monday to families.

“It’s within your authority absolutely, however… we probably should have been informed prior,” Armstrong-Romero said. “It just caught me off guard.”

Munn pointed out that he sent the board several emails before making the announcement to families. Armstrong-Romero later said that because of the volume of emails she has been receiving, she may have missed the superintendent’s communication, and may in the future as the board changes its governance model, ask for a phone call to board members instead.

Board member Gerkin, who voted against the switch, said that in her conversations with principals, she worried that they may soon be overwhelmed by the challenges, but thought that for now they could continue the work. 

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