What Colorado’s First Day Of School Looked Like In A Pandemic

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Co-teacher and coach Katie Dickinson takes students’ temperatures as in-person public school classes began on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, including at Centennial Elementary in Evans.

It was a first day unlike any other.

Some students in masks. Some students at home with a computer on their lap. And a lot of nervous teachers and parents.

Still, at schools across the state, things often looked more orderly than might be expected from the whirlwind of planning that led up to reopening.

Early Monday morning at Centennial Elementary School in Evans, parents adjusted their children’s face masks and handed them containers of sanitizing wipes, like they might do with snacks in another year. Crossing guards took students’ temperatures and led them to the front door of the school, where the staff greeted children and put them in a long line of footprints spaced six feet apart.

Cousins Navena Castaneda and Syriano Lopez wore matching beaded lanyards attached to their cloth masks. Alexandra Castaneda, Lopez’ mother, said their grandmother made the lanyards to keep them from losing their masks during the school day.

"I'm nervous," she said. "I really don't want to send them but with the newborn too and working a full-time job, it's kind of hard to not put them in school."

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
School office manager Sarah Chacon directs a student as in-person public school classes began on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, including at Centennial Elementary in Evans.

Navena was excited to be attending school in-person, unlike so many of her peers across the state.

"It's scary to get the virus when you're trying to learn, but it's still kind of impressive because most of the schools that I know are actually closed and doing online schools," she said. 

Sheridan, Cherry Creek, Greeley-Evans and Mesa County districts all started Monday, Aug. 17, along with others across the state. More openings, particularly in the Denver metro, come the week after.

Even after five long months of round-the-clock planning on what learning will look like in a global pandemic that has no end in sight, many districts tweaked their plans up until the last moment. Several large districts shifted from in-person or hybrid plans to all-remote learning in the weeks that led up to the start of the school year.

The third-largest school district in the state, Douglas County, began orientation Monday with 20 percent of students attending each day of the week. 

“It’s the first time in the history of public education that we’re starting the new year off in a pandemic, but I have no doubt that our students, our staff and our parents are up to the challenge,” said Douglas County superintendent Thomas Tucker.

It takes a community to run pandemic-times schools safely.

That’s the lesson out of Mesa County Valley School District 51, where around 19,000 students attended classes Monday, mostly in-person. Learning in Grand Junction started up under a heavy blanket of smoke, piped into the valley by the huge Pine Gulch Fire burning just north of the Grand Valley. Students who weren’t comfortable with a recess in the smoke were allowed to stay inside.

Still, school officials say one of the biggest hurdles Monday was convincing parents of the importance of masks.

“We had some parents objecting,” said district communication specialist Catherine Foster-Gruber.

Wearing a mask to prevent the coronavirus has been a hotly contested matter in conservative Mesa County, where some have demonstrated against masks and questioned if the pandemic is a true health emergency.

District 51 pandemic rules require that all students in grades six through 12 and all adults wear masks while at school, except at lunch. Pre-K through fifth-grade students are allowed to take their masks off once they are in the classroom.

Megan Murray, a nurse who covers four District 51 schools and a regional nurse specialist for the Colorado Department of Education, said school personnel tried to work with those families to let them know they would need to get a doctor’s orders for no masks, put their kids in face shields, or go to online learning. She said they still met with resistance — except from the students.

“The kids were fantastic about it,” Murray said.

So far, about 2,600 District 51 students have enrolled in online learning. Students attending in person have any new and unusual symptoms tracked through an online system. About half of those online forms were filled out on the first day of school.

Still, the first day went smoother than during preparations the week before. On Friday, about 40 teachers walked out of a meeting to talk about safety measures with administrators and school board members. Some were disgruntled about a lack of personal protective equipment and nursing help and others about the fact that the meeting was held in the middle of the day when teachers couldn’t attend the entire session.

Foster-Gruber said personal protective equipment is now in place in all schools. Extra nursing staff, in the form of a health assistant along with a nurse in each school, have been hired in half the schools. Colorado Mesa University is aiding the district with that staffing shortage by providing nursing students.

In-person learning makes for happy families and stressed-out teachers in Sheridan.

At around midday, 10-year-old Maya Lopez hopped into her dad’s truck to head home. It was the end of her first half-day of in-person learning and the fifth-grader at Fort Logan Northgate 3-8 in Sheridan slowly pulled down her face mask to reveal a huge smile.

“I love learning,” she said. “I love my new teacher, Miss Chacon. She was really nice and awesome. I made new friends and then I went to gym today. It was awesome.”

Like many families at pick-up, Maya’s was happy to have her back in school.

“I think it is better that kids come to school instead of being at home,” said Alfredo Lopez, Maya’s father.

They need socialization, to make new friends and see their teachers in person, he said. He was sure the school would do what it had to keep children safe. 

Elementary students in Sheridan have the option to attend all day, while middle and high school students can attend in-person in the morning and then switch to remote learning for their electives in the afternoon. Like many districts across the state, everyone has the option to learn online only.

Fort Logan Northgate Principal BJ Jeffers directing traffic on the first day of school, Aug. 17, 2020 in Sheridan School District

Principal BJ Jeffers directed traffic outside and families thanked her for opening schools up. She said a school survey showed 75 percent of families wanted to come back. Ninety-three percent of students at Fort Logan Northgate qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunches and almost half are “emerging bilinguals,” learning English as a second language.

Even so, it’s been an adjustment for families. For example, the district can no longer run bus service because it said that following Centers for Disease Control guidelines would have allowed only 12 kids on a bus. That has put a squeeze on many families.

“Our parents, most of them are essential workers,” she said. “So their kids will have to go remote from home because there's not a way to get them to and from. And we totally understand that.”

Students filed out of the school by grade from separate entrances, all at different times, all wearing masks.

When asked how it felt to be back, sixth-grader Johnny Thompson had a one-word take on the situation: “Weird.”

He said he’d been at home alone for so long, it was strange to be around other kids and students were more quiet than usual. He said his morning was mostly spent learning how to take care of the Google Chromebooks students would be using and practicing walking around the school with masks on. He said he “didn’t even notice” being in a mask all morning.

“Online I would have failed,” he said. “I know I'm good with computers. It's just that I get distracted easily and since I have an Xbox, I get distracted by that really easily.”

Johnny’s dad Carl said learning remotely in the spring was rough.

“I knew he wasn’t getting the education he needed,” he said.

Thompson’s boss has adjusted his hours so he can pick up his children at 3:15 p.m. 

Meanwhile, teachers at Fort Logan Northgate have been thrown into a whole new world of teaching. They are doing synchronous teaching:  instructing the kids in front of them, while also teaching kids at home watching on their Chromebooks. Each classroom has a tripod-mounted camera trained on the teacher so students at home can watch and participate.

“If they want to raise their hand and ask a question, the hand goes up on the computer and the teacher knows to stop and ask that question,” said Jeffers.

It might sound good on paper, but teachers looked a little shell-shocked at the end of a morning of teaching.

“It was a rocky start,” said fourth-grade teacher Catherine Aten, who huddled over computers with other teachers at lunchtime. In late July, almost a third of Sheridan teachers preferred that the school year start with an online model.

“It’s not managing one classroom anymore,” she said. “It’s managing two platforms, online and in-person. It’s hard to manage two different locations.”

Even if all the kids came back, Aten said because of space constraints, they can’t all be in her room. Sheridan is limiting classrooms to 12 students each. The school has created overflow desks in the hallway where students will tune in remotely. On Monday, Aten tried to have little emotional check-ins with students but it wasn’t very successful.

“That kind of interaction is going to be real hard to have, especially with two separate locations,” she said. “If they were all virtual, it might be a little bit easier. Or if they were all here, it might be easier.”

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Fort Logan Northgate 3-8 fourth grade teacher Catherine Aten on the first day of school in Sheridan School District, Aug. 17, 2020.

Still, this was day one. The learning curve is extremely steep for both students and teachers. The first couple of weeks are meant to get everyone used to the technology and getting everyone comfortable with each other. At the end of the first half-day, Jeffers, in a mask and shield, was pleased.

“Everybody was a little nervous. Everybody was a little bit on edge. No one's ever tread these waters before,” she said, even as she crowed over the school community. “These teachers are absolutely fantastic. I could not have asked for a better staff. The kids today were out of this world. They were ready to come back.”

Attendance Monday ranged from 80 to 90 percent with about half the kids online. Teachers will reach out to families who have yet to decide whether they will stay with online learning or in-person.

Even kids in the same family may be learning in different ways.

In Harrison 2 School District in Colorado Springs, middle and high school students are all learning remotely, while elementary students have the option of learning in person.

With her older children attending school from home, Keisha Ross stood on the sidewalk on the edge of Monterey Elementary School grounds as she waited for her daughter, a first-grader, to file out after the last bell. Ross was satisfied with the school’s approach to the pandemic but regretted the way it had disrupted the usual first day of school routines.

“I didn’t even get to see face to face who her teacher was, none of that,” Ross said. “I wish I could have taken her to the door rather than taking her right here and turning around because she’s so small.”

Monterey's principal, Erika Tunson, said some of the students struggled to get used to using computers for class assignments at the same time as their at-home peers. But she was happy with how the staff had gotten students to follow safety guidelines.

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Thousands of Colorado students went back to school on Monday, Aug. 17, including Harrison 2.

"It is hard for kids, but our teachers have been really good at reinforcing (social distancing),” Tunson said. “Just to keep kids apart in line they're telling them to ‘put your elephant trunks up,’ which means put a hand out so they are far away from them.”

The pandemic never felt far away though.

In Monument, the start of the school year at Lewis-Palmer Middle School was delayed after the principal developed COVID-19 symptoms. On Monday, Colorado College announced the 155 residents of the Loomis Hall dormitory would need to remain under quarantine for the next two weeks after a dorm resident tested positive for the virus.