Denver Public Schools Will Start The School Year Online

July 17, 2020
Coronavirus East High School ClosedCoronavirus East High School ClosedHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver’s East High School entrance was almost deserted Monday March 16, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak.

Denver Public Schools announced Friday that students will start the year learning remotely instead of offering an entirely in-person option as previously planned.

The district will also push back the start of school until Aug. 24.

The decision to delay the traditional start date by one week comes as Colorado has recently seen an upward trend in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The earliest that in-person learning would begin is Sept. 8, officials said.

"This is completely new territory for all of us," Superintendent Susana Cordova said. “We’ve come to the determination that it would not be possible to reopen school with the size of cohorts that we’ve been planning.” 

Based on public health information from June, DPS had planned for students to return to schools in cohorts of 30. But the most recent health modeling caused the district to change plans. Officials said they, alongside teacher’s union officials, met with local and state health experts this week.

The change impacts the district’s 15,000 full- and part-time employees and more than 90,000 students.

Cordova said the educational, emotional and mental health needs of students are best met through in-person learning, “but the COVID-19 crisis is not over.”

“A remote start will help our community, our city, and our state keep cases from spiking and overwhelming our health facilities and our workers,” she added. “And it will help keep our staff, our students and our families safe.”

More than half the district’s families completed a survey sent out by DPS. Initially, 75 percent of the respondents said they’d prefer an in-person learning option. But as more time passed, those numbers trended lower, Cordova said.

She said the decision to return to a remote model gives health experts more time to assess the trajectory of COVID-19, adding that she expects a more gradual return to the classroom for students as well as smaller cohort sizes. 

In the current plan, teachers will return to school on Aug. 10. The following week, educators will make one-on-one connections with students to see how they’re doing emotionally and to make sure they have adequate technology for remote learning.

In the spring, DPS distributed 57,000 iPads and Chromebooks with hotspots to students, which it paid for with federal stimulus dollars and district reserves.

“There is definitely a need for more federal funds,” Deputy Superintendent for Operations Mark Ferrandino said. “I think it’s important for all of us to advocate with our senators and congressmen and women about more funds for public education.” 

Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said in a statement that the decision is in line with feedback the union has been getting from its members.

“We’ve heard from so many members that there is fear and extreme concern around the nuances of the in-person return to school plans,” Choi said.

But the news that schools were not reopening in person hit some DPS parents and children hard.

“When I told my daughter she started crying and ran to her room,” Tim Little said.

Tim Little says he lost his job in the spring because he had to watch his 8-year-old daughter at home when schools shuttered. He has drained his life savings and has resorted to food banks to eat. His brother helped him cover this month’s rent.

Little says remote learning is inadequate for children who have been isolated at home for months, and the effects of that have been “devastating” for families. He adds that not all parents have the training to help their children academically.

“There is no way I could do it again (remote learning),” he said. “Some of us depend on our children being in school so we can go to our jobs because daycare exceeds the amount of our gross incomes.”

The district will continue to provide breakfast and lunch to families in need during remote learning and also plans to expand that service to more locations.  

Officials said DPS has built out a “more robust plan” for three possible models: Fully in-person, fully remote and a hybrid model. Cordova said the staff can more quickly pivot from one to another, adding that students will have to master a limited number of online platforms during remote learning. A common criticism shared from this past spring was that teachers in the same school used different platforms, which frustrated students.

Registration for the fully remote option opens on July 27. The district plans to share more information on that option next week.

Information from health officials will inform when and how plans change, Cordova said. She added that the district has asked health officials to create a framework to identify the threshold that would allow for schools to safely reopen for fully in-person instruction and for a hybrid model of learning.

Cordova thanked families for their patience, acknowledging the challenge presented by the uncertainty. But she said safety is paramount and guidance must come primarily from health experts.

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