Cecilia Maldonado, 8, does an online math lesson at her home in Timnath on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Cecilia said so far she’s been enjoying learning at home. (Valerie Mosley/Special to The Colorado Sun)

School districts in Colorado will not have to meet minimum days or hours of instruction this school year.

That’s a key piece of guidance that the Colorado Department of Education provided to state superintendents late last week as they navigate new realities in the face of closures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“This is a completely unprecedented situation,” said Katy Anthes, Colorado’s commissioner of education. “We don’t think all of those data collections should be the focus right now.”

That means school districts won’t have to make up for lost time with additional days of school this summer.

Instead, she said, districts should be focusing on ways to engage all students with some way to continue learning.

The guidance comes as districts around the state are grappling with how to handle remote learning, including in communities with limited internet access or even cell phone service. The Colorado Department of Education earlier this month waived state testing requirements and said it would temporarily stop tracking low-performing districts that might otherwise face state intervention.

District leaders say they are grateful for the guidance and flexibility, though many say they still need more clarity on certain issues, particularly graduation requirements for both this and next year’s seniors, on teacher evaluation requirements, and around serving students with special needs. All of these matters involve state and federal law.

Susana Cordova, superintendent of Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, said there’s a bit of a paradox in the relationship between the state and districts.

“There is hope for concrete guidance but also hope that the concrete guidance is flexible,” she said. “People want to feel comfortable that they’re doing the right thing, and it’s uncomfortable because what that will look like will be different for different kids.”

Usually Colorado districts have to offer a minimum of 160 days of instructional time every school year. But statewide, school buildings are closed until at least April 17, and even as some districts have rolled out plans to keep students learning from home, leaders have struggled with giving teachers and students flexibility while also tracking how much time students are engaged in learning.

Now, instead, all districts must do is submit to the Colorado Department of Education a letter that has been shared with the community, which explains the district’s plan to continue learning.

State officials are encouraging districts to be creative, including pointing out that continuing learning does not have to be through online methods and can still involve take-home paper packets. But, in keeping with Colorado’s local control philosophy, the state will not issue rules around what has to be in those remote learning plans.

District leaders’ interest in more guidance around special education is related to their liability.

Districts wrestle with IEPs

The 700-student Burlington district on Colorado’s eastern border with Kansas offers a center-based program for students with more serious disabilities from several surrounding districts. Superintendent Tom Satterly said he’s unsure how to provide many of the services those students rely on without in-person contact.

“How do we make sure IEP needs are met, legally, with social distancing?” he asked, referring to individualized education programs required for special education students.

In Aurora, Superintendent Rico Munn said both the federal government and the state department need to provide more clarity around what districts should be doing to try to serve students with special needs.

“We’re going to do the best we can,” Munn said, even without guidance. “But, it’s a little frustrating to not know at the end of the day whether or not that will suffice.”

And whether it will be enough to help students, he said.

That’s his top concern, for now, but Munn said the situation is evolving.

“We’re finding new issues every day,” Munn said. “If you ask me tomorrow I’ll probably have another. Still, everybody is stepping up to the plate trying to work together and collaborate.”

Graduation requirements feel vague

Lisa Yates, superintendent of the 970-student Buena Vista district in central Colorado, said she appreciates the gradual pace at which changes have been made and the respect for local control that the Colorado Department of Education has shown.

Plus she added, “there are times that we want someone to tell us what to do, but there are local circumstances that we need to take into account.”

Yates said it would be helpful to see in one place how other districts are handling decisions on issues like graduation requirements.

In Colorado, graduation requirements are set by the local district, with some state guidance. The only state-required class is civics. Next year’s graduating class will be the first to have to meet more standard minimum requirements, but even then, districts had a variety of options as to how to let students meet those.

So far, the state has said that districts should be accommodating in finding alternatives for this year’s graduating students to meet their requirements.

As for teacher evaluations, Yates said she has already told her principals not to use online learning as part of teacher evaluations.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, said local control is simply part of the reality in Colorado, but it means teachers are grappling with radically different situations, whether on graduation requirements for students, evaluations for teachers, or grading of student work.

“The guidance, because we are a local control state, can seem very vague or general,” she said. “That’s the reality of who we are. There are 178 local school districts making local decisions about these things, which creates confusion for teachers, for students, for families. That’s not a criticism. It’s the reality of how our state works. But it does create these layers of complexity.”

Baca-Oehlert would like to see more clarity on certain issues, including how teacher evaluations should be handled.

By law, Colorado teacher evaluations are tied to student performance on state tests, but those state tests won’t be given to students this year. Additionally, there are requirements around teacher observations that will be difficult to complete as everyone works from home.

“We would prefer that CDE have more specificity on what’s allowable by law, rather than just telling districts to do what they want,” she said. “We do hope they provide some direction on these very complex things.”

Officials from the education department said they expect their next focus will be on completing guidance for districts around teacher evaluation. Although much of the teaching evaluation process is set in law, Anthes said she doesn’t anticipate the need for legislative changes. As the department evaluates the guidance districts need, she said, she is working closely with the governor’s office and can work with him on executive actions if needed.

Anthes also told the State Board of Education in a special meeting Friday that as much as the department has already done, it is all still “Phase 1.”

“There will be a Phase 2 set of decisions that will have to happen as well,” she said. “Those decisions will happen once we have a better understanding of when this situation will end.”

As the governor has said before, Anthes reiterated that it’s likely school buildings will be closed the remainder of the school year.

“We’re learning right along with districts,” Anthes said. “The longer this goes on, the more things it will impact.”

Erica Meltzer is Bureau Chief of Chalkbeat Colorado, where she also covers the legislature and statewide education issues. Erica was a founding editor of the local news site Denverite. Before that, she covered everything from housing and energy...

Yesenia Robles is Chalkbeat Colorado’s Suburban Reporter looking at changes happening in Denver’s suburban school districts. Yesenia grew up in Denver, graduated from CU Boulder and is fluent in Spanish. She previously covered suburbs, education...