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From left to right Jose Garcia, Mary Garibay, Shelby Gallegos and Lenora Vallejos clean a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Colorado’s largest public school district will return to in-person classes this fall after transitioning to remote learning in the spring, but students’ school days will look a lot different with mandatory masks, health screenings upon entering schools and modified schedules that keep cohorts of kids together.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said at a Friday news conference that the district’s 92,000 students will move back to in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year at all of the district’s 207 schools. However, the district will also offer an online schooling option for grades K-12 to accommodate families uncomfortable sending their kids back to classrooms.

Denver Board of Education Vice President Jennifer Bacon said many educators and DPS staff have been vocal about the importance of bringing students back into the classroom.

“We learned a lot in our transition to remote learning, what works and what doesn’t,” Bacon said at the news conference. “And we learned that for many students, nothing can replace the learning that face-to-face interaction provides. While school may look and feel different next year, we cannot wait to see students back in their classrooms among their peers and with their teachers come August. There will be some adjustments to make, and we must remain nimble to any changing circumstances.”

Most DPS and charter schools will start the academic year on Aug. 17.

Shelby Gallegos cleans a classroom at Bruce Randolph School on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The district plans to roll out other health and safety measures at schools this fall, including limiting how much students move throughout the day, not holding any assemblies or large gatherings and hosting breakfast and lunch for students in classrooms. DPS schools will also forbid students from sharing or using communal supplies and will provide hand sanitizer and soap to students, encouraging frequent handwashing. Additionally, the district will disinfect classrooms and buildings consistently.

DPS has collaborated with the Metro Denver Partnership for Health to understand necessary health and safety standards.

On Friday, Cordova underlined how much students rely on schools for their wellbeing. DPS serves a very diverse population, she said, with about 60% of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Students turn to schools for meals and much more, she said.

“Our students depend on our schools for access and opportunity to learning,” she said. Schools are also critical outlets for resources for mental health, support from teachers and offer students the ability to problem solve and collaborate.

DENVER, CO – APRIL 03: Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova announced that DPS schools would not re-open to in-person classes for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 crisis at a press conference at DPS headquarters April 03, 2020. Cordova announced on June 26, 2020, that in-person classes will resume in the fall for the 2020-21 school year. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

DPS classrooms have been mostly empty since March. Like many districts across Colorado, DPS planned to extend its spring break, closing schools to students by two weeks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Less than a week later, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order closing schools between March 23 and April 17. Under a “safer-at-home” order enacted by Polis in April, as his “stay-at-home” order expired, schools were directed to continue remote instruction through the end of the academic year. However, the order allowed districts to use their buildings to distribute essential materials, equipment and food while also authorizing districts to hold small in-service meetings as well as small-group instruction, in-person counseling and special education services.

How school will play out as students return to coursework in the fall has largely been a question mark so far this summer. The Colorado Department of Education, however, helped districts start plotting what their return to classes will look like with guidance it issued at the end of May.

In a toolkit that has not yet been finalized, CDE has pressed schools and districts to evaluate whether they can protect vulnerable children and staff, to practice social distancing with desks spaced 6 feet apart in classrooms and, as DPS is doing, to have students wear masks at school. Other elements of the toolkit encourage schools and districts to consider staggering schedules and, in line with how DPS is proceeding, to keep groups of students together and minimize their contact with other clusters of students.

Cordova said DPS considered a hybrid model to limit the number of students physically at school, but the district doesn’t believe that would create a safer environment. On the days that students aren’t at school, there would be no guarantee that they would follow the same practices.

Cordova noted that the district asked parents in a survey to discuss three hybrid models in the event it needed to go that route.

“What I would say is it was pretty loud and clear that a hybrid model might be necessary but was not the first choice of the majority of parents,” Cordova said. 

Schools across the state aim to bring kids back

The variety of options that DPS is offering families for fall classes mirrors what’s happening across the state as districts seek to cater to families ready to send their kids back to school and those who aren’t, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at the Colorado Education Initiative.

The big test will come if conditions change in the middle of the year and schools are forced to switch gears.

“It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed like other options were on the table and as we look around the country we’re seeing potentially a new wave of (COVID-19) emerge,” Mascareñaz said. “It behooves us all to have backup plans that are able to support our educators and schools in case conditions shift.”

Mascareñaz believes that bringing 92,000 kids back to school in a district like DPS is feasible. But whether it’s sustainable is a different matter.

The ability to keep classes of students together in schools is the same kind of challenge that occurs in keeping groups of people together in broader cities and towns, Mascareñaz said.

“We have to understand that those are both in direct relationship with each other,” he said.

A parent hands off a student’s work to Centennial School Principal Kimba Rael in San Luis, Colorado, on April 8, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As more school districts move in the direction of DPS, Mascareñaz said, many are feeling fortunate in Colorado, where cases of the coronavirus aren’t surging. But districts are also trying to create backup contingencies if that changes, he said.

Rural school districts, in particular, are setting their sights on bringing students back to classrooms full time, said Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, which represents 146 rural Colorado districts.

They’re eager for kids to return to the classroom, she said, “because the classroom is the best place to deliver instruction, because being in school is important for kids’ socialization and wellbeing.”

While CDE has offered up suggestions about how to alter schools to make them safe spaces in the midst of the coronavirus, some changes are hard to implement in local districts, Murphy said. For instance, staggered schedules present logistical challenges in rural communities, where the greater distances pose transportation barriers.

Another factor influencing rural districts’ considerations for the next academic year revolves around internet access, with significant concern around kids who lack access or a reliable connection.

Rural districts are also trying to figure out how they’ll respond if a student or employee gets sick. Keeping everyone healthy and safe is a top priority, Murphy said, and many schools are looking for flexibility with outbreaks severely affecting some communities and being more limited in others.

“Schools are trying to navigate these complex circumstances with their local health departments,” Murphy said, “and we’re looking forward to more guidance from the state as to what that might look like.” 

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...