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Denver Public Schools will not have in-person classes to start the fall semester because of coronavirus

Colorado’s largest school district appears to be the first in the state to rule out in-person classes right away

Students and community members march past East High school during a Black Lives Matter demonstration to emphasize the need for more black educators in schools in Denver, June 7, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s largest school district on Friday evening announced that it will not have in-person classes at the start of the new school year, becoming what appears to be the first district in the state to go that route amid the coronavirus crisis. 

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Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova made the announcement during a virtual news conference. The decision will affect the district’s approximately 93,000 students.

The decision is a sharp turn from the district’s previous plans.

In June, Cordova said DPS likely would start the 2020-21 school year with full in-person learning at all of its 207 schools, with an online option still available to families not comfortable sending their kids back to classrooms.

Cordova at the time noted the importance of reopening school buildings, where students receive support beyond academics, including meals and mental-health resources.

And earlier this week, DPS released a 61-page draft plan detailing what in-person instruction might look like, but stopping short of saying the plan was a sure thing.

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

However Cordova said on Friday that the latest coronavirus modeling presented to the district made it clear that having in-person classes in August wasn’t a safe and realistic option.

The district will also delay its start date by a week to Aug. 24. Most of its schools were slated to start the school year on Aug. 17.

“The soonest we would consider a gradual return to in-person learning would be Sept. 8, just after Labor Day,” Cordova said. “We will make that decision by analyzing the ongoing rates of COVID infection in our community.”

District officials say they continually met with local health experts over the past several weeks.

“It’s been really challenging to make firm plans given the changing conditions,” Cordova said. 

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova speaks at a news conference on April 3, 2020. (Pool photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Cordova said she wants to open classroom doors back up to students as much as many teachers and parents want to, but the district also must ensure that it is following expert guidance on how to keep school communities safe and not worsen the pandemic in the city.

She said she recognizes the shortfalls of remote learning for students, both in terms of serving them academically and meeting their social-emotional health needs, but with the pandemic continuing to affect Denver communities it’s a safer option.

“Our priority continues to be reopening our schools for safe, in-person learning, when it is safe to do so,” Cordova said.

DPS teachers will start professional development on Aug. 10 and then begin their school year preparations on Aug. 17, taking time to understand the protocols that will be used when students begin the academic year. They’ll also use that week to connect individually with their students, Cordova said.

The announcement comes as all of Colorado’s 178 school districts are deciding how to best educate their students with the health and safety of the community in mind. Many districts have not firmed up their plans.

Some peer districts, like Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, have committed to full in-person instruction in the fall. But others, including Cañon City School District and Centennial School District R-1 in Costilla County, have been preparing for a combination of in-person and online classes in order to limit the exposure of teachers and students. 

MORE: Online classes aren’t going anywhere, but thousands of Colorado students still don’t have internet access

Others have narrowed their options to in-person learning, online learning or a blended approach and are waiting for more health and safety guidance before making a final decision.

Many of Colorado’s rural school districts are eager to resume classes in school buildings, in part because of struggles with access to a reliable internet connection, but they’re prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff, said Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, which represents 146 rural Colorado districts. 

Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, emphasized how tough of a spot districts are in as they try to nail down the best approach to learning for the fall.

“I think DPS and all of these districts are rightfully struggling with what to do given the virus is growing in many communities in Colorado, and I think it’s outrageous that the federal government hasn’t stepped up to provide the kinds of supports that one would need in the midst of the worst national crisis in public education modern history,” Schoales said.

He believes a hybrid model is possible to manage in districts, though challenging in a district the size of DPS.

There are many examples of schools and districts across the country that are excelling at “managing a very difficult situation,” Schoales added.

Teachers across Colorado have expressed anxiety about returning to teach in-person classes. In recent days they’ve been calling, at the very least, to be included in discussions about how to proceed. Many are torn between wanting to see their students face-to-face and keeping their students, themselves and their colleagues safe.

Denver Public Schools’ decision comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are worsening in Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis warned on Thursday that if the current trend isn’t altered the state’s hospitals will be overwhelmed in September

Denver Public Schools will continue to provide food to families in need while it conducts remote classes, looking to expand the number of sites where it distributes meals.

DPS Board of Education leaders reiterated how distance learning will help the district ensure students and staff remain safe.

“This has been a rollercoaster spring and summer,” Board President Carrie Olson said.

Cordova noted that DPS has prepared three plans for classes as it moves past the start of the school year:

  • One for all in-person instruction
  • One for all remote learning 
  • One that lays out a hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning

District officials believe that schools are better positioned to pivot more quickly in the future when the conditions require them to, she said, given what’s been learned since the pandemic began.

DPS is working with local health officials to determine what conditions would be needed to open schools back up to in-person learning.

The district plans to share more details about what remote learning will look like by the middle of next week, Cordova said. Along with providing training to teachers on how to start the year remotely, the district will limit the number of platforms students use.

Results from a survey the district administered to families earlier this month showed that about a quarter of families preferred their students to be in virtual classes in the coming school year.

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