A group of Front Range school districts announced jointly Friday that they have abandoned all hope of returning to classrooms this academic year.
But remote learning will continue for the thousands of public school students while the state fights the spread of COVID-19.
The 14 districts include some of the largest in the state, among them Denver, Jeffco, Douglas, Cherry Creek and Aurora.
In the joint release they said the steps necessary to re-start normal life after the virus passes would make it nearly impossible to complete the school year on campuses, given that the impact of the virus has not yet peaked in Colorado.
"Providing a concrete direction now with regard to in-person learning for the duration of the school year allows us to focus our energy and attention to addressing questions and concerns, rather than ongoing uncertainty," the statement said. "It will also allow us, as school district leaders, to shift to a proactive stance in that we can begin to plan for completing the current year remotely, and returning to school in August when we are able to joyfully welcome our students, staff and families back into our buildings."
In a separate email to her district's teachers, Denver Public Schools superintendent Susana Cordova said she recognizes that school just won't be the same when conducted by computer.
"I know remote learning won’t be the same as interacting with students face-to-face in our classrooms – yet this approach is the next best option to keep moving forward and providing our students with education and enrichment," Cordova wrote. "And I know it comes with its own challenges, both for our families and our educators who are balancing so much at home. I hope we can all give ourselves and each other compassion and understanding."
Other districts making the decision were 27J, Adams 12 Five Star, Adams 14, Clear Creek, Englewood, Littleton, Mapleton, Sheridan and Westminster.
Friday's announcement ends weeks of uncertainty as, first spring break was extended, then school closures extended, leaving parents and students in limbo as remote learning efforts were just starting to get ramped up.
It will also create a scramble among districts to replace rites of passage like proms, graduations, and other end-of-the-year celebrations for seniors.
The districts acted just two days after Gov. Jared Polis announced that he would extend a statewide school closure order through April 30th. At the Wednesday press conference, Polis advised school districts to prepare for the possibility of an even longer statewide closure, and he said that some had already started to do so.
By that afternoon, Cherry Creek School District warned parents that they were discussing an end to in-person instruction.
On Thursday, districts including Poudre, in Fort Collins, Thompson in Larimer, Weld and Boulder counties and Gunnison Watershed on the west slope all announced they were closing school buildings for the rest of the academic year.
"The key factor leading to this decision is guidance from county health officials that the impact of COVID-19 is likely to peak during the last week of April," said a letter to parents from Superintendent Marc Schaffer in the Thompson district. "This creates a significant safety risk for all of our students, families and staff members and because of that determination, I truly feel that this is the wise step for us to take as a district and a community."
On Friday, Pueblo District 70 also decided to end in-person learning for the year.
“This was an extremely difficult decision for our staff to make. But we believe that this is the right choice given all of the information that we have received from local and state health officials,” said Pueblo superintendent Ed Smith in a letter to district staff and parents. “The health and safety of our students, staff and families is our priority. We believe that finishing this school year through our remote learning platform is one of the most effective ways in which we can do our part to avoid exposing anyone to unnecessary risk.”
While Polis has praised districts for rapidly moving to distance learning, he’s acknowledged that some have experienced a learning curve. Those challenges include how to best serve students with disabilities or those without internet access.
Typically, Colorado has a minimum requirement of 160 days of instruction per year. But this year, schools won’t have to meet minimum days or hours, according to guidance released recently by Colorado’s Education Commissioner Katy Anthes. That means schools won’t have to make up lost days due to the new coronavirus over the summer or some other time.
Districts also have flexibility to determine graduation requirements for this year’s seniors, as well as grades and whether students should advance to the next grade.
Some, like Adams 12 Five Star Schools, made the decision to cancel proms after Polis's announcement Wednesday. Graduation, however, remains up in the air in that district, with even a summer graduation ceremony under consideration, should life return to normal by then.
"It is still our hope to hold graduation ceremonies in order to recognize our senior class this year," read a statement from Adams 12 Five Star posted on the district website Wednesday. "In order to do so, that may mean postponing to a later date in the spring or summer as well as pursuing more creative ways to celebrate this important milestone."
Editor's Note: Because of a digital production error, the caption on our featured image incorrectly stated how long schools across Colorado will be closed. The caption has been corrected to indicate that Gov. Polis has closed in-person learning through April 30.