Denver Public Schools announces return to in-person classes this fall

Teacher Hannah Maldonado wears a red T-shirt while looking at first graders doing work at rows of desks at Denver’s Barnum Elementary School in February 2019.
DENVER CO - FEBRUARY 14: Hannah Maldonado, a 1st grade teacher at Barnum Elementary, is back to class, on February 14, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Maldonado and many other teachers are back in the classroom after a marathon negotiation session ended between Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools ending the teacher strike. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post) (RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post)

Denver Public Schools plans to hold classes in person this fall, joining a number of other metro area districts in a more complete return to the classroom.

The announcement represents a change from an initial plan that called for separating students into cohorts and having them attend on alternating days or weeks to keep class sizes small. State public health rules still limit schools to no more than 10 people in a classroom, but Gov. Jared Polis has said repeatedly that he expects those rules to be loosened by August, when class resumes. 

Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova announced the change in plans in an email to parents Friday and then at a press conference. She said evolving public health information and parent demand drove the decision. 

“Every week, we learn more from our health experts about the COVID-19 virus,” Cordova wrote. “We learn from school systems around the world how to keep our students and staff learning, working and healthy. We’ve considered the overall effects of having schools open at full strength for our students and families, something that we have heard is critically important to our community.”

The decision comes on the heels of similar decisions by suburban districts. Jeffco Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District will be in person full-time at least for elementary school, and Westminster and Mapleton will have all students in school full-time.

New guidance from metro area public health agencies emphasizes that children do not seem to play a major role in transmission and argues that the consequences of keeping children out of school outweigh the risks. 

“No reopening structure can ensure zero transmission, and some infections are likely to occur among students, staff, and families, whether from exposure in the home, the community, or in school,” the guidance states. “However, the American Academy of Pediatrics Colorado Chapter argues that the harms of school closures, including isolation and loss of community, will lead to adverse risks that can and should be mitigated by thoughtful prevention measures to allow a return to school.”

Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, expressed reservations about the plan.

“Although our DCTA members miss their students, they are extremely concerned about potentially putting employee, student and community lives in jeopardy,” she wrote in an email. “We have received many calls and emails voicing our members’ fears. 

“DCTA is committed to make sure that any kind of reopening will be done with safety as the first priority and the details will need to be discussed further with the district.”

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On social media, some teachers asked if they would get hazard pay.  

Masks will be required for students, teachers, and staff, unless there is a medical reason not to wear one, and everyone will have to complete a health screening each day before going to school. The district plans to purchase additional desks to replace tables in some classrooms, as well as Plexiglas shields for one-on-one conversations. Federal relief money will pay for many of these supplies. 

Cordova said many details, including how to handle electives like music, art, and gym and how to move cohorts around the building, are still being worked out. The district is also figuring out how it will respond when there are cases in a school, though Cordova said staff members who worked with the infected person will have to quarantine for two weeks.

Cordova said Denver has the advantage of learning from the opening of schools in other countries, some of which have been successful and some of which have closed again in the face of outbreaks. One lesson is that public health measures like masks cannot be implemented a la carte but must be practiced consistently by everyone.

An educators task force spent weeks developing a hybrid model that had students in school part-time. However, “the feedback was pretty loud and clear that a hybrid model was not the first choice of parents,” Cordova said. “It was pretty overwhelming.”

Cordova said that model may still be used if the public health situation changes. The most recent modeling shows cases increasing in August, coinciding with the start of school. Colorado has opened many businesses and activities over the last month, and the impact of those decisions isn’t clear yet. In the last week, case counts increased, though it is too early to say if that represents a trend.

However, officials have doubts whether the hybrid model will be more effective at containing the spread of COVID-19, Cordova said. In school, teachers can ensure students wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Out of school, they cannot — and with many parents still working or returning to their jobs, children have to be somewhere during the day.

“Part of what we’re building is that understanding of the importance of following public health measures,” she said. 

Cordova spoke of the “compelling” reasons to bring students back into school and acknowledged that many students were not well-served by remote learning in the spring, despite what she described as great effort by parents and teachers. The district handed out 50,000 laptops and 10,000 hotspots, but 5% of the district’s 92,000 students still don’t have broadband internet access at home. 

All parents will have the option of enrolling their children in full-time online school if they don’t feel comfortable placing their children in a classroom. They won’t lose their place in their home school if they make that decision.

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Cordova said the district is working closely with the principal of the district’s online school to develop higher quality instruction. Some lessons from the spring are that students do better when they have access to real-time live instruction, but that those lessons also need to be recorded so that all students have access. Online school also needs to include opportunities for teachers to check on how students are doing emotionally. 

Parents are being asked to fill out a survey by July 10 saying what they intend to do. That will help the district plan for transportation and other services. 

Cordova said the district will try to allow teachers who have health concerns to work remotely as well, and she imagines a “big for schools problem” over the summer in which the districts learns how many teachers and students want each option and assigns them accordingly.

“We’ll be looking for what kind of match we can make between teachers who don’t want to teach in person and students who want to be online,” she said. Federal money might be used to hire additional teachers if necessary.

But some teachers are already concerned that process will force many to make hard decisions.

Joanna Khatavkar, a third-grade teacher at Maxwell Elementary in northeast Denver, has a two-year-old son who has been hospitalized repeatedly for respiratory issues. She knows she is not the only Denver school employee with a vulnerable child, parent, or spouse at home.

But when she asked if she could continue to work remotely, a human resources officials told her she would have to wait until the district had an accurate count of employees with their own health problems. Only then would the district determine if it could accommodate her request.

“We’re going to have to decide if we keep our jobs,” she said of teachers in her position. “I love my students, but I love my family more. And I think a lot of teachers are going to be guilt-tripped into returning to the classroom and endangering the lives of their children or their parents.”

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