Colorado’s third-largest school district is planning to start the year on a hybrid schedule. The nearly 68,000 Douglas County School District RE-1 students will spend two days at the school for in-person learning and three days at home for remote learning.
Cases of COVID-19 are rising in the county, so principals, teachers and health officials were wary of a wholesale return to school. Under the hybrid schedule, students will be organized into rotating cohorts, which would keep a group of students and staff together throughout the school year. The goal is to limit exposure to other students and staff -- and help officials track any potential spread of the virus and if there is an outbreak.
“It gives us a chance to orient our students. It gives us a chance to get them back in the building. It gives us a chance to learn as we go so we’re not just always in reaction mode,” David Ray, the Board of Education president.
Maria Volker teaches Spanish and social studies at a Douglas County high school. She said she’s satisfied with the hybrid approach, which will cut class sizes by at least half.
“Apparently I will be in school a minimum of four days a week but facing less students,” she said. “I think this is the best plan that we could have come up with.”
On Saturday, the school board held a special meeting to discuss the reopening of schools during the pandemic. It started at 8 a.m. and lasted nine hours.
“This is a very contentious time and I received so many emails saying ‘I watched the entire meeting,’ ” said board member Susan Meek.
She said there are many challenges and a lot of uncertainty. She called the board’s job to educate students while keeping them and their teachers safe, and supporting the economy a “balancing act.”
“Everyone is doing their best to navigate an environment that we’ve never been through before,” Meek said. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety. What has become undeniable to me is that schools are essential service providers.”
She said the hybrid opening makes the most sense for the safety of students and staff.
“Let us open up schools and ensure we’re able to do it in a manner where we are being successful and being able to flex to having full in-person as soon as we’re able to do that. And then flex back to full e-learning if that becomes the situation,” Meek said.
The board said the plan -- which was approved unanimously -- organizes preschool through 12th students into cohorts that will rotate between two days of in-person learning and three days of e-learning from home each week. And a 100 percent remote-learning model will also be offered to families who prefer that option. The first week of school -- the week of Aug. 17 -- will be a student orientation week where only 20 percent of students attend school each day.
Parents took to social media after the marathon meeting, both praising and condemning the plan. A recent parent survey showed that 84 percent of parents in the Douglas County district wanted full in-person learning.
“After hearing from district leadership, school leaders and after listening to community concerns, parent concerns and student concerns, we felt the hybrid model was best suited to opening our schools given the current COVID-19 risk guidance levels,” Meek said.
Students in Aurora will take classes online until October, according to the education news site Chalkbeat.
The plan would allow some students with special needs to go into school buildings at times. The district is still trying to figure out whether the second quarter will be a hybrid model or in-person only.
As for Douglas County teacher Volker, she said she’s eager to be in the same room with her students, where she will wear a mask and a face shield.
“Am I still scared? I’m still scared, but I’m scared when I go to the grocery store,” she said.
CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin contributed to this report.