Denver high schools are reopening, but in-person hours vary across the city

Sign in a school hallway asks people to stay to the right as a COVID precaution.
High schools are reopening with safety precautions in place. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Denver middle and high school students are gradually returning to classrooms for the first time in more than 10 months, with in-person classes set to start by Monday at the latest. Many schools are reopening with a hybrid model that combines in-person and remote learning. 

But how many days and hours of in-person learning each school offers differs across the city. Denver Public Schools gave schools leeway to come up with their own schedules while adhering to a limit of 17 in-person students per class or 120 students per cohort.

Some schools are following a classic hybrid model, splitting students into two groups and having each group learn in person two days per week. Students will learn online the other two days, with the fifth day reserved for working on assignments on their own at home. 

Denver’s largest high school, East High, is also splitting students into two groups. But instead of learning in person for two full days, each group will be in person for four half days. 

A few high schools, including North High and John F. Kennedy High, offer as many as four days of in-person learning per week. Others such as George Washington High are keeping classes virtual but offering in-person enrichment. All schools also offer an entirely online option.

Denver’s secondary students have been learning online since March, when the district first shuttered school buildings due to COVID-19. Elementary schools reopened for several weeks this fall, but the district deemed it too risky to reopen middle and high schools. 

There were also logistical challenges. At the time, the district had limited the number of classmates each student could interact with throughout the day to 35. Based on evolving health guidance that in-person learning is relatively safe when COVID-19 precautions are followed, the district raised that to 120 students, making it easier for secondary schools to operate.

Smaller high schools, such as 300-student Manual High, were able to reopen quickly this month. At Manual, 40% of students chose in-person learning. After orientations last week, students began attending four days per week this week, from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m, said Principal Joe Glover. This allows them to rotate among four in-person classes per day. 

Because each class has no more than 10 students in it, Manual can keep desks 6 feet apart, even though guidelines allow for 3 feet, Glover said. Most classes are taught by teachers in person. For the few teachers who have accommodations to work from home due to health risks, a proctor oversees the classroom while students learn online.

Unlike larger schools, Manual can space students far enough apart in the cafeteria during lunch, Glover said. Many students choose to eat outside anyway, he said, and the school keeps track of which students eat inside for contact-tracing purposes.

“It’s wonderful,” Glover said of having students back inside the building. “Just seeing how much they’ve grown and how much they’ve changed, it’s amazing.”

At about 1,400 students, North High is nearly five times as large as Manual. But Principal Scott Wolf figured out a way to offer four days of in-person instruction at his school, too, though for fewer hours each day. Students at North actually have three choices: Two days of in-person learning per week, from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.; four days in-person per week; or fully online.

About half of North students chose in-person learning. Wolf considered offering a classic two-day option, but when he ran the numbers, he realized that would leave some in-person seats unfilled each day. The four-day option allows students who may struggle with internet access at home or who need extra academic help to come every day.

And it’s turned out to be the most popular option. Just this week, Wolf said he’s heard from 33 families who want to switch from the two-day to the four-day model.

Unlike at Manual, North students won’t eat at school. Instead, they’ll be offered grab-and-go lunch sacks on their way out the door that will include breakfast for the next morning. The decision to end the day at 1 p.m. was made in part with teachers in mind, Wolf said.

“Instead of them panicking — ‘Where am I going to eat?’ ‘Is it OK to share this microwave?’— that’s an option for staff to go home,” Wolf said.

George Washington High, which serves about 1,200 students, is keeping all of its classes online. With half of students opting to stay remote, and a third of teachers with work-from-home accommodations, much of the instruction would be virtual anyway, said Principal Kristin Waters.

But two days per week, students have the option of attending a two-hour “interactive learning block” between 1 and 3 p.m. at school. The blocks are meant for students to digest the day’s lesson, work collaboratively on assignments, or do hands-on projects like science labs. Students can attend those sessions virtually as well.

For Waters, maintaining consistency for students is key. She worries that COVID-19 cases and mandatory quarantines would interrupt students’ learning in their core classes.

“In reading about other districts and having to go back and forth, into quarantine, who’s there, who’s not, that could interrupt the consistent instruction that kids get,” she said. “If that’s what’s meaningful … why would we jeopardize that consistency?”

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