Schools across Jefferson County are trading in-person learning for remote instruction as the Thanksgiving break approaches and coronavirus cases surge, but not all students in Jeffco Public Schools will turn to their screens to finish out the first semester.
Two Roads Charter School, which has campuses in Arvada and Littleton, has committed to in-person instruction through the end of the semester, bucking a trend in which more metro Denver districts are closing schools because of health and safety concerns. It’s a matter of keeping the charter’s students safe from risks other than COVID-19, including those that threaten their stability at home, Principal Wendy Noel said.
Jeffco Public Schools isn’t the only place where charter schools are diverging from the district’s own learning plan.
“In some cases, charter schools have adopted the same approach as their district, but in others, because of their flexibility and autonomy, they have adopted a somewhat different course,” said Dan Schaller, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
Charter schools are public schools that while typically linked to a school district, have the freedom around curriculum, staff and budget. This autonomy and the close connection some charters have to their school communities allows them to be more nimble than other public schools, Schaller said.
About 14% of Colorado public school students — more than 125,000 kids — are enrolled in 261 charter schools in 70 communities, according to figures from the league.
As the number of COVID-19 cases has risen statewide, Gov. Jared Polis has continued to support classrooms remaining open. Districts across the state have tried hard to keep students coming back to the classroom. And like their traditional public school counterparts, charter schools statewide are having to make tough decisions about how to best educate their students and keep them — and their teachers — safe.
It’s not an easy ask for large districts, like Jeffco Public Schools, which moved its middle and high schoolers to remote learning on Monday and will pivot elementary school students to online classes after Thanksgiving.
For Two Roads Charter School, which has about 600 students in grades K-12 between two campuses, the logistics are more manageable, but still complex.
State guidance on school operations and safety offered to charter schools is the same guidance given to all schools, Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer said.
Two Roads Charter School has offered families three learning options since the start of the school year, including full in-person learning, remote courses and a hybrid model, Noel said.
Two Roads Charter School is a small school community with smaller class sizes — smaller than normal — of between 12 and 18, Noel said, and students “very much rely on the teachers to help get them through.”
The school leader, an 18-year veteran of the charter school, doesn’t see a better — or safer — way for her students to learn than in the classroom. Many of the school’s kids are living in a constant state of struggle at home, with some facing food insecurity and others lacking supervision, technology and support. Around 20% of the school’s student population qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch, and that population includes homeless students.
“If I sent my students home, COVID would be the least of their concerns,” Noel said.
She insists her students need face-to-face interaction and says she would never put her students in danger.
“If I ever thought they were, I would move us to a different option,” she said.
And that still could happen, Noel said.
About 80% of the school’s entire student population has showed up to in-person learning at school this fall, Noel said. The school is allowing families who may not be comfortable with classroom learning to switch to online classes any time during the semester. As COVID-19 cases have spiked statewide, 10 families have opted to transition to remote learning.
Still, Noel said, in surveying teachers, staff and students about learning modes, she found the majority of each group said they wanted to be teaching and learning in person.
“I’ve never seen students want to be at school so much,” she said.
Noel met with Jeffco Public Schools and also consulted with other local charter school principals last week to decide how the rest of the fall semester will work. Five charter schools out of the 17 total in the district will continue their in-person learning option, she said.
Neither of Two Roads’ campuses has experienced a full-blown outbreak this fall, she said. The Arvada campus has been affected by a handful of cases, none of which were contracted at the school. One case was at the high school level. A seventh grade and eighth grade class also had to be quarantined because of students who were exposed to sick family members.
A COVID response team reviews each case, and the school works with a nurse from Children’s Hospital Colorado and an aide from its onsite clinic to record data on cases and run each exposure through a tracking system, Noel said.
The incidents have not shaken the principal’s confidence in the safety of the school environments. Two Roads Charter School has taken several health and safety precautions, including implementing one-way hallways, building handwashing opportunities into the school day and ensuring students don’t congregate in hallways by keeping them from using their lockers.
The campuses have also stepped up their cleaning protocols, Noel said, with high-tech electrostatic cleaners that are used on Fridays while all students learn from home. Plus, teachers spray down all desks with a cleaning solution between classes.
The hope is to end the semester in person, and then the charter school will evaluate what direction to go for the second half of the year.