What will in-person classes look like in Denver? That depends a lot on what parents decide this week.

A masked girl works on her laptop at a learning center.
Esperanza Raimirez works on a laptop last month at Denver’s Newlon Elementary School, which has been hosting child care during virtual learning. (David Zalubowski / AP)

Sara Kay McNamara is torn. If she keeps her son at home to do virtual learning, will he have to change teachers and lose the one he adores? If she sends him into a classroom and someone in his kindergarten class gets sick, will he struggle to switch back to remote learning?

“The fact that there’s a choice is overwhelming,” the Denver mom said Wednesday. “It’s putting the pressure on us to be like, ‘What is the right decision? And is there a right decision?’” 

As Denver sees relatively low rates of COVID-19 and the school district prepares to reopen classrooms next month, families must decide by Friday whether to send their children in person or continue the virtual learning that began Aug. 24. The choice is binding for the first semester. 

But before they choose, many families have questions about what this shift will mean. While the district can answer some of them, the answers to other questions depend on what parents decide — making for a frustrating situation for families on the fence.

For example, schools can’t tell families who their child’s teacher will be until they know how many students choose in-person learning and how many want virtual, Superintendent Susana Cordova said. Once schools have that information, they can build class rosters.

“I keep saying it’s not just ‘chicken and egg;’ we have to somehow try to be both the chicken and the egg at the same time,” Cordova said.

Cohorts and gallons of hand sanitizer

Denver Public Schools began reopening classrooms to preschool students last week. It will begin doing the same for kindergarten and first grade students on Sept. 28, along with second grade students with disabilities who attend special education centers.

Students in grades 2 through 12 will start attending “health and safety orientations” the week of Oct. 12. All classrooms — preschool through high school — will be open for learning by Oct. 21.

Elementary school students will have classes in person five days a week. Middle and high school students will follow a hybrid schedule with a mix of in-person and virtual classes. But Cordova said the district won’t know exactly what that mix will look like — two days in the classroom? or three? — until families make their choices.

That’s because the district is aiming to limit the number of older students in a school at any one time. Each Denver student, regardless of age, will interact with no more than 35 classmates, according to district guidelines

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That doesn’t necessarily mean there will be 35 students per class, Cordova said. For instance, in middle and high school, where students switch classes every period, a student may interact with multiple smaller groups of classmates that add up to 35. 

Thirty-five students is much smaller than the cohort sizes of 60 or 120 students the district suggested this summer, which caused local public health officials to balk. By keeping cohorts small, Cordova said the district is hoping to avoid the kind of situation that occurred at a neighboring high school, where a small number of positive cases caused 1,700 students to go to remote learning.

But it’s not always students who trigger such massive quarantines. Often, schools must send hundreds of students home because their teachers have been exposed to the virus. That’s because one teacher may interact with several cohorts of students.

Denver Public Schools is one of several districts in the metro area that began offering free COVID-19 testing to teachers and staff last month. Of the 2,410 people who’d gotten tested as of Monday, 25 were positive, according to data presented to the school board. The district’s total positivity rate was 1.1%, putting it lower than the city as a whole. None of the positive cases required students to quarantine because nearly all students are still learning virtually.

By Monday, the district had delivered to schools more than 88,000 child masks, 169,000 adult masks, 9,500 face shields, and 1,400 gallons of hand sanitizer, said Mark Ferrandino, deputy superintendent of operations. The district had also distributed 12,500 desks to replace communal classroom tables, and more than 10,000 plexiglass dividers.

The dividers can be used when social distancing isn’t possible. Students should maintain 3 feet of distance from each other, district guidelines say. That’s less than the oft-cited 6 feet but in line with state guidance for younger students issued in July. The state guidance said older students, who transmit the virus similarly to adults, should maintain more distance. 

Matching students and teachers

Despite the district’s preparations, parent Angelica Aguilar said she doesn’t feel safe sending her three sons into school. She’s heard about the quarantines in other districts.

“It’s not a hard decision,” she said. “For me, their health is first.”

Destiny Reed isn’t sending her son, either. She said she was considering it until she got a reminder about the availability of before- and after-school care. Her family doesn’t use it, but the reminder made her realize that if other students in her son’s class do, he would be exposed secondhand to the kids in the after-school program, too.

“I said, ‘I don’t think it’s worth it,’” Reed said. “I’ll figure out how to do this at home.”

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About 30% of Denver families have already chosen to continue learning virtually, Cordova said earlier this week. In addition, about 10% of Denver teachers have requested an accommodation to work from home because they or someone they live with is at high risk from COVID-19.

That presents the district with another problem: how to match students with teachers. 

“Districtwide, it’s clear we’ll have enough teachers,” Cordova said. But on a school-by-school basis, she said, if all teachers at a certain grade level have requested to work from home, that may make for “a scheduling challenge.”

Cordova said schools will first try to match virtual students with teachers from their school. That may mean teachers are temporarily reassigned; for example, a kindergarten teacher is asked to teach third grade. If that matching isn’t possible, she said teachers can explore livestreaming their classroom lessons to the students learning virtually at home.

The district plans to offer training next week on livestreaming, according to a district presentation. District staff will also help teachers get the appropriate technology, including headsets with microphones and document cameras, it says. 

Another option would be to match virtual students with a virtual teacher from another school, likely from the same region of the city, Cordova said. The last option would reassign staff who work in the central office to schools or use substitute teachers.

That’s one of McNamara’s fears for her kindergarten son. He really loves his teacher. She wouldn’t want him to have to switch, but she’s not sure about livestreaming either.

“The last thing I want my son to see is a bunch of other kids in class and him being at home,” McNamara said. She added, “I don’t know what the right answer is.”

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