Middle and high school students in Jeffco will return to schools full time. Denver is considering a shift, too.

A high school student walks in an empty hallway past a row of purple lockers.
A student walks the halls between classes at Arvada West High School in Jeffco on Jan. 25, 2021. Students will be shifting from hybrid learning to full-time in person. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Middle and high school students in Jeffco schools will shift away from hybrid learning and start regularly going into school buildings in the next two months. 

Jeffco, the second-largest district in Colorado with about 78,000 students, made the official announcement Friday noting that Jefferson County has moved into the second-lowest level of restrictions, level blue, on the state’s dial.

Under Jeffco’s plan, schools would start to reach out March 15 to parents of students with the highest needs to schedule more in-person learning. Then on April 5, after spring break, all hybrid learning would cease, and all secondary students would start attending schools four days a week. Students who choose to be in full remote learning, will continue to have that as an option.

District officials said they expect that by then, state guidance may allow districts to relax social distancing requirements, allowing for more students in classrooms.

For the past year, secondary students — those in middle and high schools — have had less access to in-person learning than younger children had. But as case rates have dropped, quarantine rules have changed. With the renewed hope around teachers receiving vaccines, several districts have now announced plans to allow students to return to school full time. Elementary students have had the opportunity to learn in person five days a week since January.

In some cases that means four days a week, in some cases five days, but all plans represent an increase of face-to-face instruction.

Several factors have made the full-time return for secondary students more challenging. For one, schedules place different groups of teachers and students together throughout the day, increasing the likelihood of being exposed to a positive case and then to have to quarantine.

Some of the districts that have announced new plans are St. Vrain Valley, Thompson School District, Douglas County and Littleton. The Westminster and Mapleton school districts have already had secondary students in person full time.

School officials in Aurora haven’t made an official announcement, but have previously indicated their intention to return students to schools four days per week, every week, after spring break. 

Denver Public Schools Interim Superintendent Dwight Jones sent an announcement to families Friday that the district is discussing how to offer more in-person learning for middle and high school students.

“I’m hopeful that we can go into the final months of this very challenging school year with our middle and high schools operating at as close to full strength as possible,” Jones wrote.

The Denver district hasn’t said what that would look like. Jones said there are lots of factors to consider, including wanting to ensure 3 feet of social distancing between teachers and students, having enough staff to operate schools given that some teachers have accommodations to work from home due to health conditions, and wanting to ensure students who chose fully remote learning still get a quality experience. 

“Our focus now is on looking for ways to have more students in classes together over the course of a school day by adjusting our cohort guidelines,” Jones wrote. 

Current guidelines in Denver Public Schools limit classes to 17 students in person. The district has allowed each secondary school to come up with its own in-person schedule this semester. Some schools are offering as many as four full in-person learning days per week, while others are offering just a few hours of in-person enrichment.

“As long as our students and staff continue to follow our health protocols for mask wearing and physical distancing, health experts assure us that there is no increased risk to having more students meeting each day,” Jones wrote.

Students, parents and teachers have had mixed reactions.

One Jeffco mom, Nadine Chavez, said she is still scared about sending her 14-year-old eighth grader to school in person, but she thinks it’s the right thing to do now.

“I can’t tell you how excited he is,” Chavez said. “He needs it.”

Initially, Chavez decided to keep him in remote learning because he has asthma, and working in a hospital, Chavez said she has seen how sick people can get from COVID. But then her concerns changed. 

“He was worrying me a little bit. He wanted to give up,” Chavez said. “I caught him sleeping through classes. His attendance, it’s just not there.”

Rusha Lev, a parent of elementary students who is also a pediatrician, has been involved in some groups to give Jeffco feedback on learning plans. 

Lev said she believes that although the risk isn’t zero, it is low, and students should be back in person.

“Kids are really not OK,” Lev said. “It’s time to see how we can do this right.”

Lev said that the important thing is for the community to keep following guidelines to keep transmission low and to ensure that schools are following their rules to mitigate risk of transmission. So far, she said, she thinks data shows they have done a good job.

Elijah Medina, a 16-year-old student in Jeffco said most students are feeling excited about having more time in school, though he said some are also a little worried about bringing the virus home to families. 

“With more people getting the vaccine, we’re all just hoping for the best,” Medina said. 

Jeffco student Morgan Fritzler, 16, helped organize a petition asking the district to keep secondary schools in hybrid learning.

One fear Fritzler and Medina shared is that a return to full-time learning will make exposures more common, meaning the likelihood of getting sent home to learn online for up to two weeks might be higher than it has been in hybrid learning.

But, Fritzler’s grandfather, who she sees regularly, just got vaccinated, alleviating another one of her concerns.

“I’m disappointed,” Fritzler said. “But I’m still trying to be optimistic.”

Reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.

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