Aurora school board struggling with who will decide when it’s safe to start in-person learning, and how

A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora.
A kindergartner flips the page while reading in class at Crawford Elementary in Aurora. ((Denver Post file))

Faced with difficult decisions about opening schools, Aurora school board members say they’re struggling with what evidence and whose advice to trust.

Aurora students will start the school year online at least until the beginning of October, but the school board is grappling with who will be in charge of deciding if it’s safe to bring students back to school buildings then and what factors should play a role.

Complicating the decision, Aurora board members said they worry that public health guidance is being influenced by political and economic pressures.

“We’re not feeling confident,” said board member Kevin Cox. 

Superintendent Rico Munn had planned to tie the district’s restart plan to public health metrics, an approach other districts have used. High rates of COVID transmission in Adams and Arapahoe counties on a set date would have triggered a remote start. More moderate rates would have opened the door to various levels of in-person learning, with cohorts and grouping to limit interactions. 

Munn wanted to wait until early this month to look at those metrics, but board members didn’t want to wait, and weren’t sure if the public health metrics Munn was considering were the right ones to measure if it was safe to open schools. So they took over the decision, ordering that Aurora start the school year remotely, regardless of those measures.

“One of the reasons I stepped back from that was just a growing nagging feeling that decisions were being made that weren’t just about health,” said board member Debbie Gerkin.

That board decision has raised questions about who has the final say on opening schools: the superintendent or the elected board. Munn wants the board to clarify who will make the next decision, and on what basis. 

Board members say that their distrust starts at the federal level. They are wary of sudden changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and threats from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and congressional Republicans to pull money from schools that don’t reopen. They worry about pressure to restart the economy by pushing schools to open so parents can get back to work. And they want more guidance on what measures to pay attention to. 

“Colorado right now is in the ‘Safer at Home’ level, which sounds like we would all be safer at home,” Gerkin said, referring to the second of three levels of Colorado’s pandemic restrictions. “It seems to me contradictory to then say the cohort model, with such large numbers of students, could be safe.”

State officials have provided guidance on the best ways to mitigate risk if schools decide to have students in their buildings, but no clear guidance on when it is safe to hold in-person learning. 

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that many superintendents have asked for clear metrics, which have been adopted in other states. The state education and health departments are working on “guideposts,” she said, but she doesn’t expect them to be issued soon.

Some Colorado school districts have created their own frameworks to make those decisions, choosing certain metrics such as the percentage of people who test positive or the number of cases per 100,000 to trigger different school models. Other districts are struggling to figure out which metrics to look at.

In the metro area, public health and education officials are working together on unified guidelines that would determine when schools can open, or should close, depending on their community data.

John Douglas, executive director for Tri-County Public Health, said he is not influenced by politics in his decision-making, even though he does get a lot of “political input.”

His decisions are complicated, however, by not always trusting federal guidance he receives from the CDC.

“I am concerned about the national decision-making,” Douglas said. “I’m not at all confident in which of their guidance is science based.”

Most of it is just guidance, or recommendations, and he can choose to take it or leave it, though, he said. He also said he understands the challenges for schools choosing whether or not to open.

“We have actually not been directly involved in that very tough decision,” Douglas said. “We did not develop guidelines about when it is safe. But we think schools really need that. We think parents and teachers need that.”

Douglas said that he believes that when schools are open, they play “a vital role” in improving public health.

But, “This is all about can you do learning safely,” he said.

School boards across the country themselves have been accused of caving to political pressure from teachers unions that are organizing to keep students learning remotely.

Aurora board members, most of whom were voted in with support from the local teachers union, have said they did not make their decision based solely on that opinion.

“I tried to listen to everyone,” Gerkin said. “I sought out opinions too.”

Munn said he is not necessarily advocating to make the decision himself, but having clear roles and responsibilities is key in crisis management, he said.

“This situation is changing every day and every time there’s a change we have to adjust,” Munn said. “The reality of having to be flexible is the space we’re all going to be living in for some time.”

In Aurora, the board uses what is called a governance model, meaning board members are supposed to set policy to guide the district, and to leave operational decisions up to the superintendent. It’s built into Munn’s contract.

In recent years the board has expressed interest in changing the model to allow it more control, but has not yet agreed on a change.

At present, Munn told the board at a meeting last week, their decision to direct him on how school should open, created a “policy misalignment.”

He presented three possibilities for the next school reopening decision in October: allowing him to make the decision, having the board make the decision, or having it be a shared decision.

Board members acknowledge they put Munn and district leaders in a challenging position, but said it’s part of the nature of the current situation.

“I do feel like I’m putting him in an unfair position,” Cox said. “That comes with the position of navigating a global pandemic. These are virtually impossible decisions.

“I have confidence in Rico,” Cox added. “But I’d rather have a frustrated superintendent than grieving parents.”

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