Denver Public Schools Will Extend Remote Learning Through Mid-October

Empty Denver South High School
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Desks at Denver’s South High School, Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on July 29, 2020

Denver Public Schools will hold classes in the new school year remotely at least through Oct. 16, and district officials are still working with public health officials on a framework that would allow students to return to the classroom.

Denver Public Schools made the announcement Wednesday. Superintendent Susana Cordova said she understands that constantly changing plans are difficult for parents, students, teachers, and staff, and she acknowledged that remote learning doesn’t meet the needs of all students.

“I know we’re all frustrated with the lack of clarity about what lies ahead,” she said. “As the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, our plans must shift. We know that we want our students back in our classrooms, and we know how much our community depends on our schools.”

Cordova said the district is working on a way to bring small groups of students who most need in-person instruction and services back to school buildings sooner, possibly after Labor Day. Those could include preschool students, those with significant disabilities, and students who are in the earliest stages of learning English. However, many details still need to be worked out.

Cordova said she knows that remote learning presents major challenges for parents, especially for those of elementary students, and said the district is working to provide some child care in school buildings.

Colorado’s largest school district already had planned to hold remote classes through Sept. 8, with the school year set to start Aug. 24, a week later than originally scheduled.

In announcing the remote start earlier this month, Cordova said public health officials raised concerns about the district’s plan for return when cases of the coronavirus are rising in the community.

At that time, Cordova said district officials would assess closer to Labor Day whether classes could safely resume. This week, leaders of two Denver charter networks also announced they would keep students learning online until mid-October because they did not think it was likely the public health situation would improve enough by September.

“Health models indicate we won’t reach a different conclusion in a couple of weeks,” Bill Kurtz, CEO of the DSST charter network, wrote in an email to parents explaining the decision.

Cordova said Wednesday the rate of spread in the community continues to weigh on the district’s decision-making. The district hopes to get guidance from public health officials about when and how to re-open. And Cordova said it’s very likely that when students do return to school, it will be through a hybrid model that has students split into groups and attend school just a few days a week to keep class sizes smaller.

Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union representing teachers and special service providers, said she supports the decision to delay opening. The union wants the district to spell out what data would determine whether it’s safe to reopen, and to provide more details on safety protocols in buildings.

“We need to prioritize people’s lives and focus on quality instruction, instead of scrambling to open before the community and the schools are ready,” Choi said in a statement. “Extending remote learning allows more time to collaborate around meticulous plans for in-person reopenings.”

Many parents have called for a return to in-person learning, but others are just as concerned as teachers that not enough safety precautions are in place or that we don’t know enough about how transmission could occur in schools.

Nallely Antúnez Gonzalez, whose children will be entering kindergarten and second grade, said she’s of two minds about going back to school. Learning online was very challenging for her children in the spring, and she feels like they lost important skills. At the same time, she worries that young children would struggle to abide by stringent health rules and that people might get sick.

“I have mixed feelings,” she said. “It’s complicated.”

Cordova said she continues to welcome feedback from parents, teachers, and staff.

“Even the people who have been unhappy with us have helped us create stronger plans,” Cordova said.

As in many districts, parents in Denver can choose an entirely online option or in-person instruction, which would allow students to transition to the classroom if and when they open. Enrollment opened Monday and continues through Aug. 21. Denver officials had previously said parents would be locked in through December to the choice they make at registration, but Cordova said Wednesday that parents need more information. The district will no longer hold parents to a selection they make before school starts.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.