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Metro Denver Schools Will Look Different This Year

Here's what students returning to classrooms might expect in the new school year ahead.

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Since the scramble to virtual learning in the spring, schools and families have had this question in mind: How long must we keep our distance, and what does that mean for molding young minds?

Governor Polis has expressed support for this, saying a pandemic shouldn’t get in the way of children’s futures. Pediatricians in the American Academy of Pediatrics in Colorado, Dr. Meghan Treitz and Dr. Rusha Lev, urge in-person learning with thoughtful risk prevention measures. The harms of school closures, they argue, are too great.

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“Sadly, over the past few months, we have seen increases in anxiety, depression, and suicidality among the children and adolescents we serve,” Treitz and Lev write in a Denver Post Op-Ed. “We have also seen increases in obesity, teen pregnancy, accidents, and food insecurity.”

Colorado’s districts have been rolling out and pivoting their 2020-21 learning plans over the past couple weeks, most of which included a full online option but initially placed an emphasis on in-person learning. In the past week, a few districts have opted to start the year with full remote learning, until at least mid October in Denver Public Schools’ case or October for Aurora Public Schools. Douglas County Schools held out for a hybrid model for all grade levels, with kids going in for two days a week and e-learning for three.

The Metro Schools Consortium, which consists of 18 school districts in the Denver metro area, will generally follow guidelines prescribed by the Metro Denver Partnership for Health and the Colorado Department of Education. In-person operating conditions include reduced capacity bussing, hygiene and social distancing signage, mask or face shield wearing when distancing can’t be maintained, and increased building ventilation.

Following patterns in school district opening plans through the Denver metro area, students who opt to return to school buildings might expect the day to look like the following.

Getting Ready

Among the typical school supply necessities, students will add to their packing list a water bottle because water fountain use will be barred. Bespectacled pupils will want to test their anti-fog options so they’ll not be tempted to remove their masks during potentially longer periods of sitting in a classroom.

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Secondary school students should check which classes they have for the day and bring only the books they’ll need in their backpack; locker use will either be limited or cut out altogether.

Before heading out the door, families will need to build in extra time for a full-body scan of symptoms and a temperature check. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher constitutes a fever. If a student registers a fever (some districts indicate 100 degrees or higher) or symptoms like a cough, sore throat, etc,, they should be kept home.

Getting There

Due to bus capacity constraints set by public health guides, such as one rider per seat, priority seating will be given to students who are younger, live further away from school, have special needs, or are on free or reduced lunch. This could dramatically reduce the number of kids served; pre-COVID numbers in Aurora Public Schools were close to 10,000 students each day riding a bus, JeffCo topped that with 12,000 to 14,000.

Now, those few who are eligible to ride and have passed an onboarding symptom check can enjoy their own full bench or a spot with a sibling. Parents should check bus routes and schedules that may have been adjusted. They might also want to stick around the bus stop in case their child doesn’t pass this checkpoint.

Disparities in access to education are laid bare here, says DPS School Board Director Tay Anderson, who tweeted about the need for neighborhood schools. “How are students from Green Valley Ranch going to get to Thomas Jefferson High School if only 15 people are allowed on a bus?”

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Adding perhaps another layer of coordination, 11th and 12th graders in Aurora Public Schools who do not qualify for bussing could need to find a way to get to school in the middle of the day, swapping in-person class time with ninth and 10th graders who must go home for e-learning in the afternoons.

Bussers, walkers, bikers, and otherwise transported students making it to school may join the rest of their prescribed cohorts to enter the building together at a specified door.

Going In

Following directions and checking safety behaviors starts in earnest at the school door. Those entering will check symptoms and temperatures, ensure secure mask and face coverings, and follow steady traffic flow in the hallways, some of which may be marked for one-way passage. Sending a friendly smile to a peer between classes won’t work as masks are required to stay put at all times indoors.

School staff will greet students from behind state government-provided KN95 masks, or they may add face shields to the ensemble. Plastic dividers erected at administrative desks may separate students from staff.

Instruction

Walking into a classroom, students encounter a hand sanitizing or constructed wash station at the threshold. They’ll notice minimalistic furnishing, with nonessentials removed, desks in spaced rows facing forward, and no difficult-to-sanitize plush toys for the younger grades. Students in schools opting for hybrid learning, such as those in the Douglas County district, would likely encounter smaller class sizes. Sheridan District No. 2 decided to split classes into two rooms with an educator swapping time between rooms, being followed by a livestream camera. A similar model may help DPS high school cohorts split into smaller groups once they return to the building.

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Under current Colorado guidance, elementary schools wouldn’t need to go to great lengths to maintain six feet of distancing. They can rely on masks, home health screenings, ventilation, and cohorts. Depending on local public health guidelines and district plans, younger kids could be in classrooms of a couple dozen.

The teacher up front may or may not be the one a student expected, as staff members will likely have shuffled around a bit according to individual remote work preferences or needs and filling of remote learning positions.

Taking Breaks

Block-scheduling is common in reopening plans, meaning students can expect to stay in place for longer periods of time and focus on fewer subjects per day. Mask breaks outside, as well as lunchtime, would offer some reprieve, breaking up a morning block.

Several districts expect meal service to happen within classrooms, while others may use the cafeteria and other common spaces to spread diners apart. High school students who are used to flocking to local eateries will either not be able to do so or will need special permission from parents.

Movement in and out of classrooms will include an ever-present reminder to wash hands. Schools plan to carve out regular intervals for this ritual.

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Recess and PE

Playtime is still a go. Young students will remain with their classroom cohorts during staggered outside recess time. According to CDE guidelines, indoor gym equipment may be used with frequent disinfection.

DPS specified that physical education and recess will only happen outside with classroom cohorts going one at a time, and that disinfecting outdoor playground equipment will likely not occur “due to staffing limitations.”

Extra Support Resources

Paraprofessionals and English Learning Development support teachers should be able to accompany students for extra assistance in class. Jeffco’s Indian Education Team will host community check-ins and learning events online.

Common learning spaces such as libraries are recommended to be open for cohorts one at a time. DPS, however, could keep libraries closed with librarians bringing books to students.

Douglas County School District’s (DCSD) plans note an intention to integrate mental health information into all of the curriculum and classes. Parents will be guided toward weekly Parent University sessions focused on Social-Emotional Learning that will be recorded and posted for the public to access. In the spring, Aurora Public Schools started offering teachers and staff access to Meru Health therapy, an online and on-demand care option.

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Other districts have webpages for mental health resources, for example Jeffco’s COVID Mental Health Supports page with check-in questions, Gozen.com videos, and contacts for school-based professionals as well as community mental health support.

For physical health, some districts are going to rely even more on their nurses and health aides.

“All our area nurses (District RNs), health aides, and other designated staff will receive extra training regarding COVID-19 procedures and protocols, in addition to their yearly overall training they are required to attend,” says Cameron Bell, Executive Director of Media Relations & Public Information for JeffCo Public Schools. “These people will be the designated point of contact for anyone with symptoms. The roles of (nurses, health aides, and other designated staff) are likely to intensify, given the protocols added to the structure of each school day and the coordination with Jefferson County Public Health and district leadership.”

After School

Teacher-led or para-led clubs and programs, and guidelines for running them, will likely come down to each school’s leadership. Students enrolled in full-time remote school are expected to have access to school sports and other extracurricular activities.

Ball players, dancers, swimmers, athletes of all kinds wait to hear if they’ll get the chance to practice and compete this year. Boys golf players can rejoice with the announcement of practices starting up again August 3.

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“I’m still not sure on how everything is going down for our sports season but we’re planning right now like they’ll be on schedule,” says Bryce Lutz, a football, basketball, and volleyball player from Castle View High School in Castle Rock. “If they get cancelled I will be super upset because this is my senior year and I’ve been waiting on this my entire life.”

Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) announced the 2020-21 athletics calendar August 4, giving clearance for cross country in the fall but shifting all contact sports, such as football, basketball, and volleyball, to the spring.

Band members got an unfortunate update earlier this summer. On July 7 the Colorado Bandmasters Association Marching Committee voted to cancel the fall 2020 marching band season. This includes all marching band clinics, independent contests, CBA Regionals, and CBA State Championships. Leaders of marching musicians will need to find creative teaching processes.

Assuming Colorado remains in a stable state, discussion about after-school early childhood care and extra programs appears positive—no great shooing away of students and staff after the final bell during in-person learning.

Just in Case

If one thing is certain, reopening school buildings, even with so many health and safety measures in place, will not guarantee a completely healthy school body or surrounding community.

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Under JeffCo’s current Restart Plan, if one member of a cohort tests positive for COVID-19, the cohort will undergo a two-week quarantine. According to Chalkbeat reporting, a single student or teacher infected at a Denver high school would result in as many as 120 other people to quarantine.

CDE guidance varies according to stages of the state’s social distancing orders. Under a “stay at home” order, schools could move to remote learning with only in-person learning for limited students who have specific needs.

All learning plans put out by school districts are subject to changes at this time. As more teachers, unions, students, parents, administrators, and public health officials chime in, the 2020-2021 vision could still shift.

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