A school bus is seen on Wednesday, July 7, 2021 in Fountain. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

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School started in Denver two weeks ago, but 7-year-old Pearl missed the first day. And the second day. And every day since. While her peers returned to their classrooms, Pearl has been at home, waiting.

Denver Public Schools is offering both in-person and virtual school options as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into a third school year. But Pearl’s family feels stuck between choosing the best educational setting for their daughter, who has Down syndrome, and protecting her health.

The pandemic has been difficult for all students, but students with disabilities have been especially impacted. And while most students are returning to somewhat normal routines this fall, Pearl’s situation shows not all students are able to do so.

Pearl also has asthma and other health conditions from surviving meningitis as a newborn, her mother said. A common cold has landed Pearl in the hospital, and her parents fear she’d suffer complications if she contracted COVID-19, so they want to keep her at home. But when they tried to enroll their daughter in the district’s new virtual elementary school, her application was denied.

District staff told her mother they couldn’t meet Pearl’s educational needs online. That has left the 7-year-old in limbo, and her parents frustrated and occasionally in tears.

“It is so hurtful,” said Pearl’s mother, Heidi Bricker. “Little has hurt as much as this has hurt.

“When you have a child with Down syndrome, you have one choice, and that is to advocate for them,” she said. “In this case, for the first time in her seven years, I feel like I failed.”

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Melanie Asmar has covered Denver Public Schools for Chalkbeat Colorado since 2015. Asmar previously worked at Westword newspaper in Denver and for a daily newspaper in New Hampshire, where she covered education. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit...