Jeffco school district mulls hybrid learning for this fall

A student engages in remote learning from her bedroom, using a lamp to light her work.
Campbell Preston, a high school freshman in Jeffco Public Schools, works on doing her first day of online learning at her family’s home on March 17, 2020. (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)

Next fall, Jeffco students could choose to go to school part time and spend other days learning at home. Or they could choose to learn entirely from home, as outlined in a draft released Wednesday.

School districts around the metro area are considering a hybrid approach to learning in the fall, as they deal with uncertainty about the ongoing threat from coronavirus. The Jeffco district is looking to get feedback that will inform its own plans and those of neighboring districts.

Officials also want to give the community time to process big changes.

“It’s a very different structure than the school we left,” Superintendent Jason Glass told the Jeffco school board Wednesday morning.

As they develop their plans, school districts have to keep class sizes below the 10-person limit currently recommended by public health authorities and must allow space for social distancing while using their same school buildings. At the same time, schools may have to cut staff as they deal with budget reductions, and face further limitations as some teachers and staff members with health conditions or vulnerable family members might be reluctant to return to work

School leaders from 16 metro area school districts have been meeting at least weekly to share ideas and coordinate. Denver metro area school and public health leaders have coordinated other decisions during this pandemic, ahead of state guidance, such as the decision to keep school buildings closed for the rest of this school year. 

“A lot of it comes out of a recognition that we have a lot of staff that have kids in different districts than where they live,” Glass said. “If we end up with systems that don’t work well together you can have an employee who has a kid that has to be at home the same day that they have to be at work and we’ve created a real hardship on them.”

“There will be an effort to try and align all of those efforts,” Glass said. “We’ll see if we can get that done.”

Other school district leaders have mentioned hybrid models but have been vague with details. The Denver school district said it was planning for a mix of online and in-person instruction and put out a survey for parents and the community.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson talked about regional coordination at a recent meeting, noting, “We’re all trying to help each other out.” At the same time, she said, Westminster must figure out “what might best fit our community,” based in part on the information gathered from a survey.

Jeffco is the first to share more details about what those hybrid models might look like, although it still includes a lot of unknowns. Employee groups will provide feedback first. Next week, the updated draft plan will be sent out to the school community, along with a survey for feedback.

A final plan would be published in July. Jeffco’s first day of school is Aug. 18.

The draft plan envisions using school lunchrooms and large areas not for student gatherings, but possibly as extra classrooms. Students would get breakfast and lunch in their classrooms. For students who stay on remote learning, the district would continue its grab-and-go meal distribution. 

The district is still deciding whether to require masks for students and staff, but is likely to make them mandatory at least when people are around others. 

Temperature checks, stepped up cleaning procedures, and hand washing would also become a part of the school day.

Based on the details shared with the school board, the plan includes three possible schedules for what a hybrid model might be. All three assume that students would be divided into groups and take turns going to school one day a week. Students would be divided either into two groups, three groups, or four, to rotate going into school on one day of the week.

Jeffco board member Brad Rupert questioned how that would impact families who are returning to work.

“If we are talking about changing society from having most children occupied five days a week to having most children occupied out of the home one day a week — that is a big deal,” Rupert said.

Depending on how many students choose to come into school at all, those students might be able to come more often. 

Jeffco leaders said they will survey families and teachers about what model they would choose, but have not decided on when that will happen. School board members pushed back on the 10-person cap and lamented its limitations.

District leaders said it’s possible that guidance of 10 could change in the next two months, but Glass also said it’s possible that throughout the school year, those rules could change more than once. For now, it’s how districts must plan.

“We want to create the opportunity for our students to be in our schools,” said Kristopher Schuh, Jeffco’s deputy superintendent, and chief of secondary schools. But, he added, “We simply cannot bring all of our students back to our schools at this time.”

Jeffco leaders also described some flexibilities for staff. For instance, if few students at a school want to do the hybrid model, there may be opportunities for staff to choose to work remotely, or for them to be in the school buildings.

But as school districts also grapple with the prospect of huge budget cuts, that may mean staffing cuts, and so the model also could mean more responsibilities for teachers.

“As teachers are teaching during the day they’re teaching the students in front of them, they also have to be aware of and engaging those students who are in the remote environment,” Schuh said. 

For that reason, the three hybrid schedules allow for at least one day that is dedicated to remote learning for everyone. Two of the hybrid schedules also give teachers a day just for training and planning. 

Glass told board members that in-person learning days would most likely be reserved for more targeted help.

“We will not be able to execute a model where students are coming in and receiving direct instruction on only the day that they have in school,” Glass said. “Otherwise we’d have to cut the curriculum that’s covered down to a fourth of what needs to be covered.”

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