U-turn: Denver reverts to virtual learning to start the school year

Staff distribute laptops to families at Denver's Joe Shoemaker School on March 25, 2020, as schools prepare for remote learning.
Staff Denver’s Joe Shoemaker School distribute laptops to families on March 25, 2020, as schools prepared for remote learning last spring.

Denver Public Schools is changing course again on whether to reopen schools next month: The district on Friday said it will now start the school year remotely.

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Colorado, and both teachers and parents expressed serious concerns about students returning to school in person.

Denver Public Schools plans to start school Aug. 24 and won’t return to school buildings until at least Sept. 8. Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district has asked local health experts to help identify the conditions under which it would be safe to do so.

“We’re anxious to get our kids back in school,” Cordova said, “and we all need to do our part to help drive down the spread of the virus.”

The announcement may give some teachers and parents whiplash, as it’s the third version of a back-to-school plan that the district has announced this summer. Just three weeks ago, the district said it planned to bring students back in person five days a week. That was a change from its previous plan for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.

“This has been a roller-coaster spring and summer,” said Denver school board President Carrie Olson. “I continue to be inspired by DPS’s commitment to finding solutions in the most unusual of circumstances.”

The changes in plans reflect the shifting course of the pandemic. When cases were lower in May and June, many parents were eager for a return to full-time school, and Gov. Jared Polis encouraged districts to prepare for full classrooms, though with safety precautions.

A Denver Public Schools draft plan for reopening schools indicated the district would group students in cohorts. Elementary school cohorts would include up to 60 students, while middle and high school cohorts would include up to 120.

But Cordova said Friday that with coronavirus cases increasing, the district and public health officials concluded those cohorts were too big and it wasn’t safe to reopen schools.

Denver Classroom Teachers Association President Tiffany Choi said in a Facebook Live update Friday that the union agrees with starting remotely. What’s more, she said the district has agreed to publicly bargain the safety measures that would be in place for teachers should campuses reopen. That could include COVID testing, which district officials said they are working on making available.

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Denver Public Schools first switched to remote learning in March. Cordova acknowledged it was challenging for some students and staff, and she said the district has revamped its back-to-school training for teachers to focus partly on virtual instruction.

Families will still have the option of choosing a totally remote model even if school buildings reopen, she said. She said the district plans to release more details next week about what that would look like. The draft plan indicated it would be “centrally managed,” meaning it may not be specific to a student’s school.

In a parent survey that closed July 10, 75% of families indicated they’d prefer an in-person model as opposed to a remote one, Cordova said. But just 53% of families filled out the survey, and the number of families choosing the remote option increased over time, in concert with the rise in coronavirus cases. Cordova said that seemed to reflect growing parent concern.

Denver will join large districts around the country in planning to start the school year online. It’s not clear if other Colorado school districts will follow. A number of Denver metro area districts have already pushed back the start of the school year to allow for more planning and a better understanding of the public health situation.

On Thursday, Polis issued a statewide mask mandate, a step he had previously resisted. State officials say that if the current trajectory doesn’t change, hospitals will start to exceed their ICU capacity in September. Colorado has also seen an increase in teenagers testing positive for COVID-19. While most of them are not at risk for serious disease, young people have died of it.

Polis said Thursday that the state is on the “knife’s edge” of getting the coronavirus back under control, but he did not suggest that schools should delay opening. Instead, he said the state would help ensure teachers have a good supply of higher quality masks

The previous plan to open school buildings was based in part on recommendations from the Denver Metro Partnership for Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics that said the emotional, psychological, and even physical risks to children were greater if they stayed home. 

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