To limit contact, some Denver students will take most classes online — even at school

A sign in a school hallway reminding students to keep 6 feet distance apart.
Denver middle and high schools face strict limits on the number of teachers and students who can interact in person. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

Facing strict limits on interaction between students and teachers to minimize the spread of COVID-19, some Denver middle and high schools are considering a model wherein students who return to classrooms would still do most of their learning online.

Other schools are considering hybrid models that have students attend part-time. Still others haven’t released their plans as they try to balance requirements for live teaching and limited cohorts, even as parents were asked to make a binding decision by Wednesday. Late in the afternoon, the district extended that deadline to Monday.

“I recognize the frustration that some of you have felt with the high level of uncertainty we are all experiencing about today’s looming deadline,” South High School Principal Bobby Thomas wrote on Instagram Wednesday afternoon. He promised more details soon. 

Denver students have been attending virtual classes since Aug. 24. Young students have already begun returning to classrooms, while middle and high school students are scheduled to do so by Oct. 21. Denver Public Schools has said for weeks that middle and high schools would offer a mix of in-person and virtual classes. But it hasn’t provided specifics. 

Rather, officials have left those up to schools to decide based on their circumstances and size. Some high schools have fewer than 100 students while others have more than 1,000.

However, the district has laid out a set of “guardrails” for middle and high schools to follow. Each student can interact with no more than 35 classmates who will make up that student’s “cohort.” Teachers can interact with no more than two cohorts. Schools should aim to provide in-person students with at least 10 hours per week of face-to-face instruction and all students with 3.5 hours of real-time instruction per day, either virtually or in person.

In person but online

Under those conditions, Principal Kurt Dennis said the best option for the two middle schools he leads is to largely continue students’ virtual learning but from inside classrooms. 

Students will stay in the same classroom all day with a single teacher. The teacher will teach their own subject to the students in person. But the students will take the rest of their classes virtually. The virtual classes will be taught by teachers located in another classroom or at home.

“We’re erring on the side of continuity for kids,” said Dennis, who serves as the executive principal of McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools.

Providing more than one in-person class per day wasn’t feasible without cutting the number of courses each student was taking or hiring a lot more teachers, Dennis said. 

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While he understands this model isn’t what some families expected, he sees benefits to students doing their virtual learning at school. Students will be able to socialize with their peers, rather than be isolated at home. They’ll get easier access to school breakfast and lunch, as well as to school counselors and mental health workers. 

“That’s a big one, especially for students struggling socially and emotionally,” Dennis said.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools are following the same model, though not all students will attend five days a week right away. Executive Principal Alex Magaña said the two schools are learning a lot by running free remote learning support centers for about 60 students this fall. Students have a quiet space to do their virtual learning, supervised by school staff. 

“We were looking at that model going, ‘We could do the same thing for kids coming back,’” Magaña said. “It’s about easing the anxiety. ...  I have sixth graders coming in that don’t know anybody. How can we support them so they can make some connections?”

Magaña and Dennis said this model allows the schools to switch more seamlessly between in-person and virtual learning should a student or teacher get COVID-19 and send their cohort into quarantine. It also ensures that students who choose virtual learning are not having a different or lesser academic experience than in-person students, they said.

But it also begs the question: If the academic experience will be similar at home and at school, will families want to risk their child getting exposed to COVID-19 by sending them into a classroom? Will teachers want to take that risk?

Melisa Jaenisch said her family is on the fence about whether to send her son to McAuliffe in person. Although he’d enjoy the socialization, she’s not sure that’s reason enough.

“It seems like little added value to what we’re already doing,” Jaenisch said.

Her daughters attend a smaller middle school that hasn’t released a plan yet. But she’s heard that school is considering offering several face-to-face classes per day. 

“There, we’re thinking the benefits are equal to or outweigh the risks,” she said.

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‘Conservative numbers’

Across the state, districts have struggled with how to handle secondary school schedules. Some evidence shows that older students can transmit the virus similarly to adults, and state guidance calls for older students to maintain more physical distance.

In Pueblo City Schools, the district planned all summer to bring students back to the classroom but decided in late August to keep high school students online, citing scheduling challenges. In Aurora Public Schools, high school students will take just two to three classes for 20 days in a row before switching classes. In-person class sizes are capped at 15. 

Colorado has no statewide rules about how many middle and high school students can interact with each other. But Denver’s guardrails are more restrictive than some surrounding districts. 

Jeffco Public Schools is allowing middle and high school students to attend up to four in-person classes per day. The Cherry Creek School District split students at its middle and high schools into two groups — A and B — with each group attending school in person two days a week. Students there are taking a full course load with as many teachers as necessary.

Earlier this month, nearly 150 students and 14 teachers in the “A” group at Cherry Creek High School had to quarantine and another 1,585 students had to switch to remote learning after several 12th grade students tested positive for COVID-19.

Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s cohorts of 35 students are “conservative” on purpose. The aim, she said, is to limit widespread disruption to in-person schooling from quarantines or switching students to remote learning.

“We felt conservative numbers would safeguard our time in school,” she said.

The district developed its guardrails in consultation with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment and Denver Public Health. While the agencies can’t order Denver Public Schools to abide by their rules, Deputy Superintendent Tamara Acevedo said the district follows their guidance since they are the public health experts.

Scheduling challenges

The district has worked to improve virtual learning this fall to provide a more consistent, academically rigorous approach than existed last spring. The goal of reopening classrooms is to provide students with things that are difficult to do remotely, Acevedo said, including academic help, emotional support, and “meaningful relationships” with educators and classmates.

But still, some schools — especially the district’s largest comprehensive high schools — are struggling to figure out how to make it work.

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Northfield High School, which serves 1,250 students, is planning to bring students back to school to do their virtual learning from inside classrooms, but hasn’t yet come up with a plan to offer any live teaching.

“The guidelines from the district are extremely restrictive, and we have not yet found a way to meet the cohorting and health guidelines as well as provide 10 hours of live, in-person instruction at the same time, keeping any semblance of current student schedules,” said Melinda Pearson, the school’s communications specialist.

Anthony McWright, principal of the 1,100-student Denver School of the Arts middle and high school, told families in a letter this week that the school had requested permission from the district to remain fully remote while providing in-person arts instruction on Fridays.

At 1,200-student George Washington High School, Principal Kristin Waters laid bare the challenges in an email to families. In addition to questioning whether students would actually get any meaningful interaction with each other and whether teachers could handle teaching their own classes virtually while supervising 35 students taking different classes, Waters wondered whether the building’s Wi-Fi could support that many video calls.

What’s more, 25% of the school’s faculty has been granted accommodations to work from home because they’re at high risk from COVID-19. “This means that no matter what format we return to in-person, classes taught by these instructors will be virtual,” she wrote. 

The school is assigned just one substitute teacher who can’t serve more than two cohorts at a time, Waters said. If a teacher is absent and the sub can’t fill in, the students in that cohort would have to stay home because there would be no adult to supervise them.

“We know that this is an incredibly challenging time, and we all want to be together again, learning and growing in-person,” Waters wrote. “We appreciate your patience as we navigate the significant challenges schools face in planning for a safe and meaningful return.”

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