Jeffco could switch middle and high school students to remote learning as soon as next week

Bird’s-eye view of a high school student’s home desk with a laptop, coffee cup, and papers.
Middle and high school students in Jeffco could go back to online learning starting Monday. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

District leaders on Wednesday proposed moving Jeffco middle and high school students to remote learning starting Monday.

Interim Superintendent Kristopher Schuh presented the plan at a school board meeting Wednesday morning, but in an email to the community later that afternoon, he said a final decision would be made Thursday after meeting again with public health officials.

The Jeffco school district is the largest in the state that has held on to in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases surge across the state. But the rising numbers that have reached high levels are crippling the district’s operations, officials said.

Elementary students will continue to have in-person instruction four days, instead of five — for now — but Schuh said it is inevitable that cases will continue to rise and likely will force elementary schools to close as well.

“We need to be ready,” Schuh said. “I do anticipate that this decision will be made.”

In an email to media organizations after the meeting, a district spokesperson said the decision is not yet “official.” However, Schuh presented the change to board members as the administration’s plan. Board members asked questions but did not vote, nor did they raise any objections to the plan or ask for changes.

On Monday, Jeffco’s rising case numbers prompted the state to raise the county’s restriction level on the state’s dial to the second-strictest level, Safer at Home Orange, which is one step away from the county moving to stay at home orders.

Being in the Safer at Home Orange level means schools this week had to revert to their original quarantine procedures — so when a school has a positive case, it sends that person’s entire cohort home.

Previously, the district was using a targeted quarantine process which allowed it to examine a person’s proximity, time spent with the infected individual, and whether masks were worn properly, to determine who had to be sent home.

In switching procedures, Jeffco this week has already sent home hundreds of students and staff for a two-week quarantine.

District leadership said that the broader quarantines are putting a strain on its operations.

The district is sending up to 40% of administrative staff from some departments daily to staff classrooms across the district. 

Janitorial staff are also overwhelmed. Typically the district will close a school for 24 hours after a positive case to do a deep cleaning, but with so many cases, the staff can’t keep up. So the district is having to close schools for cleaning for 48 hours instead.

The district also cited transportation challenges. As cases also arise around bus staff, the district is unable to cover all routes and is having to limit services.

Schuh said that while district leaders are keeping a close eye on case rates and community transmission data, he said he is weighing whether schools and classrooms can be maintained safely.

“At this point in time especially for our secondary schools the answer is we cannot,” Schuh said.

The plan presented Wednesday morning would require students in sixth through 12th grades to move to remote learning starting Monday, at least through Dec. 4. Elementary students would have in-person instruction Monday through Thursday with a remote learning day on Fridays, also beginning next week.

The district plans to announce a decision for the remainder of the school year the week of Nov. 30.

For now, Jeffco is also planning to allow some students with severe special needs to continue to have in-person instruction, as well as some students who need to complete in-person projects for career and technical programs. 

If the county later moves into a higher restriction level on the dial, ordering residents to stay at home, the district would move completely to remote learning, but would attempt to continue in-person preschool classes as well as in-person instruction for students with severe special needs and those in certain career and technical programs.

Board member Susan Miller asked if it was possible to persuade the state to allow the district to continue using targeted quarantine procedures to allow for a quicker return to in-person learning. District officials said they are hopeful that public health officials are having those discussions with the state as more districts are switching to remote learning.

“We are hopeful. They’re bringing these concerns to the state,” said Julie Wilken, the district’s director for the department of health services. “They don’t want our kids to not be in school.”

Clarification: This article and its headline have been changed to reflect that Jeffco Public Schools will make a final decision Thursday.

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