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As Colorado schools start plotting fall classes they have more questions than answers

Schools will look drastically different to Colorado teachers and their students. The state has offered guidance on how to carry out the changes and keep everyone safe.

Shelby Gallegos cleans a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
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The coronavirus is forcing Colorado school districts to get creative as they reimagine what classes could look like this fall.

Among the options: hybrid classes with some students in schools and others learning from home; staggered and shortened school schedules; pushing desks 6 feet apart, spreading classes across multiple rooms and having teachers rotate between them. And for some of the state’s youngest students, school could unfold as a half day.

Gone may be the days of students crowding into classrooms, on playgrounds and in cafeterias as schools try to learn how to bring students back together while keeping them apart.

The Colorado Department of Education this week offered guidance for how schools could resume classes this fall, but districts all over the state are already exploring their own scenarios for how to deliver classroom instruction.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 19: Lenora Vallejos and her crew clean a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
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For all the questions swirling around how school will play out in the fall, education leaders agree on one thing: Schools will operate differently according to the individual needs of their communities and the ways they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes hopes that students and teachers will be able to be together in classrooms again. But the CDE and schools statewide are planning for the full range of possibilities.

“Undoubtedly, we know that school will look different this coming year,” Anthes said during a news conference on Tuesday where the guidance was revealed in the form of a “toolkit.” “There will be a whole new set of protocols and priorities that schools will put in place in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”

CDE released the toolkit — developed in collaboration with district leaders and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — to help public and private schools plan for the start of instruction in August. Students statewide have been learning remotely as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“Really the top priority in the toolkit is to keep students and educators healthy, but at the same time we know we need to make sure our children keep learning,” Anthes said. “In-person learning at school is so important. It provides structure and relationships for our children, and it also supports our working parents in their need to return to their jobs.”

Anthes said the school year will be shaped by public health orders, the rate of new cases and medical progress on treatment. Those behind the toolkit are hoping they’ll be able to access more detailed community-by-community data and information that will allow for regional approaches to kicking off the school year, she said.

“We know that requirements may change as the situation evolves over the summer and as we learn what measures need to be in place to highlight staff and student safety,” Anthes said.

But the toolkit is “very purposefully not done and not complete,” and will be revised in the next few months.

“We know we have to be nimble and have lots of options for next year as next year unfolds,” Anthes said.

Schools could feature spaced desks, masked students

Guidance from the state touches on several factors behind school operations, including health and safety, continuity of learning and conditions for learning.

When it comes to health guidelines, the draft toolkit closely follows recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and aligns with executive and public health orders and guidance for other areas like child care and public spaces, said Therese Pilonetti, unit manager of CDPHE’s Institutions and Emerging Programs Unit.

“However, we know that the context could be very different across diverse communities, so we do urge districts to work closely with their local health departments to fine-tune their own plans,” Pilonetti said.

In spelling out health and safety recommendations, the departments have created roadmaps to walk school and district leaders through the decision-making process of reopening their facilities and handling confirmed coronavirus cases.

The departments urge schools and districts to assess whether they can protect vulnerable children and staff and if they can screen students and staff entering school buildings. They also recommend schools and districts highlight the importance of hygiene, including hand washing and cloth face coverings for staff. If a case is confirmed in a school, the CDC says a school will likely send students and most staff home for two to five days.

Additionally, the guidance pushes schools and districts to ramp up cleaning, disinfection and ventilation as well as practice social distancing. Desks should be spaced 6 feet apart in classrooms, in line with guidance from the CDC, though that could change depending on future data and how it impacts classroom ratios, said Rhonda Haniford, associate commissioner of school quality and support for CDE.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 19: Jose Garcia prepares to clean a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Anthes pointed to staggering schedules as a way to halve the number of students in a building as one potential for schools, and districts will have to decide what will work best. But the options will evolve over the next several months, she said.

The toolkit recommends that students wear masks at school in the fall — parallel to CDC guidelines — but Anthes said the departments will have to see what happens over the coming months and determine how critical masks are for students.

The state also encourages schools and districts to be proactive with monitoring student and staff health, local cases and exposures.

The toolkit goes into greater detail with considerations around class scheduling. Among them is the idea of keeping classes or groups of students together in a cohort, minimizing their contact with other cohorts and having teachers travel between classrooms. 

Another idea includes “looping” elementary school teachers with their students from the last school year so that those students have a sense of familiarity and greater emotional security as they head back to school.

Schools could also consider flex-grades, combining a couple grades such as fourth and fifth and having teachers begin the school year by focusing on content from the last months of fourth grade that kids may have missed out on because of distance learning.They also could consider which content areas rely most heavily on in-person instruction and which areas could be facilitated through remote classes.

The challenge of balancing class space with enrollments

When students in Harrison School District 2 end summer break, district administrators plan to bring back as many students as they can safely while also offering remote learning for families not yet comfortable sending their kids back to classrooms, Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel said. 

The Colorado Springs district has already looked into spacing desks 6 feet apart and found that most classrooms can fit 12 to 15 students, compared with 20 to 30 under ordinary circumstances, Birhanzel said.

The district, which has 11,000 students, will determine how many kids and staff members it has room for and will have to get creative with schedules, she said.

Schools will also try to contain groups of students and keep them from interacting — an effort that’s easier to accomplish for elementary grades than it is for middle schoolers. It’s harder yet for high school grades.

A kindergartener at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School reads during class on January 31, 2019. (Cyrus McCrimmon for the Colorado Children’s Campaign)

Younger students stay with their teacher all day, but older students have different teachers for different subjects. The district will look into teachers rotating rooms, the superintendent said, though that’s challenged by students having different schedules.

What might help with space constraints is providing some courses online instead of in person. The district has committed to teaching math in person, but some elective classes could be delivered online, she said.

“That’s where we’ll have to be really creative so we can ensure that students still have the offerings that they need, but we can still meet the requirements,” Birhanzel said.

She said the district is hearing overwhelmingly from families who are eager to get back to school — and she’s just as eager to welcome them back.

“For us, the in-person component is huge in terms of making sure that we can monitor learning,” Birhanzel said. She added that face-to-face interactions help school staff better gauge how students are doing and that school provides a safe, consistent place for students.

Cañon City Schools has three potential plans for jumping back into classes in the fall. One focuses on running in-person classes at full capacity, another centers on continuing distance learning and a third — the one the district sees as most realistic — is a hybrid approach. 

The third option would allow families who prefer to keep their kids learning at home to continue schooling online, Superintendent George Welsh said. That plan also involves dividing up students attending in-person classes. 

In one scenario, schools would accept only half their students in classrooms at a time. For kindergarten through third grade, students would be separated into a morning class and an afternoon class. For all other grades, students would alternate their days in class during a four-day school week for most students, with a group coming in on Monday and Wednesday and another group coming in on Tuesday and Thursday. Their days outside the school building would be spent in online classes with live streams or recordings of lessons and every other Friday would be committed to teachers providing extra support to students including special education students, Welsh said.

Downtown Canon City, looking west. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

However, if the district is still limited to no more than 10 students per classroom as it is now under Gov. Jared Polis’ safer-at-home order, it would instead divide students in groups that would rotate every three days. In that setup, the district would operate off a nine-day calendar cycle — which it currently uses — with classes Monday through Friday one week and Monday through Thursday the subsequent week.

Over the summer, Cañon City Schools will join several other rural and small- to medium-sized Colorado districts to share their ideas for the fall term so that all participating districts can take advantage of best practices.

The district, which has about 3,600 students, will also test out its fall plans during in-person summer school for elementary school students and special education students in July and August, Welsh said, as it experiments with practices like having no more than 10 students in a class, screening kids upon arrival, social distancing and letting them out to play in a safe way on occasion.

“We’re viewing it as a great opportunity to learn a lot about what the beginning of the school year might look like,” Welsh said.


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