Denver Public Schools will close Friday, Nov. 19, in a move that Superintendent Alex Marrero said was both a “thank you” to staff who have been stretched thin and a designated day for parents, including district employees, to get their children vaccinated.
“While it’s been wonderful to have schools back open for full, in-person learning this year, it’s taken an exceptional amount of determination and strength for so many,” Marrero wrote in a message to the DPS community. “As a way of showing our appreciation to our community and giving families additional opportunities to take advantage of the COVID-19 vaccine now available to young children, we will be starting the Thanksgiving break a day early.”
The decision applies to all district-run schools. Charter schools set their own schedules.
The closure adds a day to the district’s weeklong Thanksgiving break, which starts the following week, and comes as other Denver metro area districts have also announced closures on short notice.
Boulder Valley School District, as well as Adams 14 and Adams 12 in the suburbs north of Denver, all announced this week they would be closed Friday due to staffing shortages. These districts already had scheduled closures for Veterans Day on Thursday.
A spokeswoman for Adams 12 said the district received 420 requests to take Friday off, about double the number of leave requests for a typical day, while it has a significant shortage of substitute teachers and classroom aides. She said she doesn’t expect closures to be an ongoing issue.
Three Denver schools — George Washington High School, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, and John H. Amesse Elementary — announced moves to remote learning this week in response to staffing shortages. Earlier this year, two other schools experienced operational closures.
In explaining those moves, district spokesman Will Jones said schools cannot remain open when there are not enough adults there to keep students safe.
“In some instances, we simply do not have enough people working, and the school district has not been able to fill those positions,” he wrote in an email. “In some cases, staff members are on leave to care for family members. In other instances, people are ill.”
Sick days are up compared to previous years, district officials said, in part because everyone is strongly encouraged to stay home even for minor symptoms. Teachers also sometimes have to stay home with quarantined children or family members. Colorado currently has one of the highest rates of COVID infections in the nation.
There is no specific staffing threshold for when schools close. Principals make that decision in consultation with district administrators.
And in contrast to a typical year when the district would have a substitute teacher pool of 1,200 people, this year just 400 people are actively working as substitutes.
Marrero said he expects what are known as operational closures to remain rare, but families should be prepared and flexible.
Many Colorado school districts are struggling to hire enough bus drivers, nurses, paraprofessionals, and especially substitute teachers. It’s a national problem, as well. Seattle schools are also closed this Friday due to an “unusually large number” of staff requesting leave. One Michigan district moved to a four-day week, and another closed school Monday on short notice.
Other large districts are also canceling classes to support vaccination efforts. Chicago is holding a Vaccine Awareness Day this Friday.
In his email, Marrero stressed the importance of vaccination for children and adults and expressed a hope that families would use this day to get their children vaccinated if they haven’t already.
At the same time, he also cast it as a day to refresh.
“By starting Thanksgiving break one day early, we’re also hoping to extend a ‘thank you’ to our DPS staff members, who have been working tirelessly through another challenging year, to give them time to focus on their health and self-care,” he wrote.
Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the extra day off is appreciated after a challenging fall semester, but more needs to be done if the district doesn’t want to lose more teachers. They’re burned out, he said, from losing lunches and planning periods to cover other classes, from longer school days, and from the extra demands with inadequate support.
District officials downplayed the role that teacher resignations are playing in staffing difficulties. Since the start of the school year, 62 teachers have resigned, Jones said. However, that’s fewer than had resigned at this time last year.
Gould said it may be time to consider a four-day school week, with the fifth day for teachers to plan, get coaching, and catch up on other work that happens out of the classroom.
“We’re grateful to DPS to make that decision [to close school], and we need to prioritize those mental health needs,” he said. “We can breath, but then what are going to do to continue to support our educators and make them want to stay in DPS?”