Colorado schools in the fall: 10 people per class, face masks, and remote learning too?

If Colorado schools return to classroom instruction in the fall, it could look very different, with temperature checks, face masks, and very small class sizes. 

The Colorado Department of Education included these requirements in guidance it issued Tuesday that’s designed to help school districts decide whether to open and if so, how to do it safely. The document, which lays out a range of options, tries to balance the safety of students and staff with a widespread desire to return to in-person classes — and an evolving public health situation.

Gov. Jared Polis and Education Commissioner Katy Anthes both stressed that final decisions will be made based on data in late July and early August and might look different in different parts of the state. The most recent modeling released by the state predicts COVID-19 cases will increase in August, coinciding with a presumed return to school.

The guidance does not recommend one school reopening scenario over another. Rather, it lays out which safety precautions are required by state order, such as the rule that staff must wear masks and a limit of no more than 10 people in a class, a cap that could still change by August. It also offers suggestions for how to put those precautions in place inside schools, as well as additional suggestions for districts to consider.

“We hope that that bridges the gap between having a complete patchwork but also providing some consistency,” Anthes said. “There’s a diversity of communities across our state and those things really do need to be taken into consideration rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Schools could consider reopening if they are able to do several things, the guidance says, including screening students and staff for symptoms, promoting hand-washing and mask-wearing, intensifying cleaning efforts, and encouraging social distancing, among other measures.

The guidance lays out other scenarios, as well, including continuing remote learning, a mix of remote and in-person learning where the in-person learning takes place in small groups, and toggling between remote and in-person learning depending on disease conditions.

“Likely, 2020-21 will have disruptions where some remote learning will need to be used,” the guidance document says. There are still a lot of unknowns: “We don’t know how widespread transmission will be in the fall, and we don’t know if there will be a second surge or when we’ll have effective treatments or an effective, widely available vaccine.”

The guidance is extensive, going into detail about topics ranging from restrooms to recess. Among the suggestions offered are:

  • Stagger arrival and drop-off times or locations. Put in place protocols to distance parents and diminish the number of students trying to enter a building at the same time.
  • To ensure physical distancing, tape mark where students can sit on the school bus. Seat students one child per seat if not from the same household and seat every other row. 
  • At school, keep each child’s belongings in individually labeled containers, cubbies, or areas. 
  • “Normal” classroom routines, such as morning meetings, small groups, or pair work, may need to be adjusted to ensure physical distancing between students. 
  • Consider keeping students in a classroom and rotating teachers instead.
  • For schools doing partial in-person learning, consider allowing teachers’ children to come to school everyday to support employees returning to work.​
  • Consider providing lunch inside classrooms instead of the cafeteria.
  • Playground equipment may be used by small groups of students as long as they wash their hands afterward. Gym equipment may be used if the equipment is disinfected after each group. 
  • Identify an isolation room or area to separate anyone who exhibits COVID-like symptoms.
  • Allow parents to make the best decision for their families regarding attendance and provide remote learning options. Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Other guidance suggests modifying the traditional classroom setup. Schools should consider breaking students into cohorts that would have recess together, eat together, and pass in the hallways together to minimize contact between students, the guidance says. 

For districts doing partial in-person learning, the guidance says to consider bringing younger students or students with special needs back to in-person learning because older students may be better able to handle online learning at home. “This could assist with some child care needs for younger students, allowing parents to return to work,” the guidance says.

The guidance lays out several “staggered attendance scenarios” for partial in-person learning. In one scenario, half the students would attend on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other half would attend on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The school would undergo a deep cleaning after the first group leaves on Tuesdays. Fridays would be remote learning days.

Another idea that addresses students’ emotional, rather than physical, needs is to have elementary school teachers “loop” with the same group of students from the 2019-20 school year “so that students return to a familiar face” and teachers can “maximize instructional time by starting with established relationships and knowledge of students’ learning needs.”

The fall guidance comes as Colorado public health officials are still trying to understand the impact of a partial reopening on the course of the disease. New modeling data released Tuesday stresses the need for continuing social distancing, especially by older adults, or hospitals could be overwhelmed as soon as this summer. 

Nonetheless, opening school buildings remains a top priority for state officials.

“Everybody would like to get kids back to school in the fall,” said Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “It helps parents be able to work better. It’s just a better educational opportunity for kids.”

Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, as well as an epidemiologist and pulmonary physician, leads a team that has been doing modeling for the state. They’ve been looking at data from other countries, including in Europe, where schools have already reopened to get a better sense for how schools might contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the role of schools in general,” Samet said, adding, “We do know that children tend to be asymptomatic. Schools are a place where children are in contact with one another but they’re also places where adults mix with children, including people who are in the more vulnerable age range.”

While most children do not become seriously ill from COVID-19, there have been cases in which children have died, including from a severe inflammatory response that researchers are still working to understand. At the same time, schools need to consider the safety of staff and the people with whom children live, some of whom may be in higher risk categories. Even amid stricter stay-at-home orders, there have been outbreaks in nearly every kind of workplace, including child care centers.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it’s important to have contingency plans but also not to move too hastily.

“We think it’s certainly wise to be making a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C, but we don’t want to rush to a decision about what August will look like,” she said. “Right now, we just don’t have that information.”

And she said it’s essential that educators be included in those conversations, “and not just the classroom teachers, but the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers. They know the circumstances the best, they live them every day, and they’re the most affected.”

Luke Ragland of the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado said it’s important to set the expectation that school will be held in the fall so that districts work through logistical challenges.

“I think we should prepare and eliminate as many barriers as possible to reopen schools,” he said, even as he acknowledged that hybrid models will be necessary to accommodate families with health concerns. “If we set the expectation, the next question is: What do we need to do to make it happen?”

“Opening one day a week is not going to cut it,” he added, a reference to a draft plan circulated by Jeffco Public Schools that brought students into school on a limited basis to keep class sizes small. “No working families can make that happen.”

Jeffco’s plan, one of the most detailed released to date, unleashed a storm of reaction. That included parents worried about how they would go back to work under a system of staggered instruction as well as teachers worried about their potential level of exposure to infection. 

Some rural superintendents have pressed for a more complete return to classroom instruction if their local public health departments agree it’s safe to do so. Lisa Yates, superintendent in the Buena Vista School District, said remote learning has not worked well for her students and improving broadband access or getting the right online learning platform won’t fix that.

Instead, she’s getting cost estimates on installing plexiglass dividers in classrooms to allow more students at a time to be in one room and hoping for more flexibility from the state, even though she’s still not sure how to make classes like physical education and choir work. And while Yates believes she could get 25 students in a classroom and maintain social distancing, instruction would look very different.

“We’re used to classrooms being very collaborative, where kids sit together on the floor,” she said. “You would lose some of that.” 

Denver Public Schools is set to release more information about its plans this week. The superintendent has said it will likely include a mix of in-person and remote learning.

In surveys of Denver principals and parents, “minimizing health risks” rose to the top as the most important factor for how to reopen schools in the fall. A different factor rose to the top for the students surveyed: “I am able to see my friends and peers in person.”

Provide feedback on the Colorado Department of Education guidance here.

Reporter Ann Schimke contributed reporting.

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