When It Comes Time To Reopen Colorado Classrooms, This New State Working Group Hopes To Help It Go Smoothly

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
School buses parked in Fruita, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis announced Wednesday that a state working group will create plans for students’ return to classrooms in January.

As COVID-19 cases have risen this month across Colorado, some of the state’s largest districts, including Denver Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools and the Douglas County School District, are sending all grades back home for remote learning after the Thanksgiving holiday.

While school officials are hopeful for an eventual return, the state says 1 in 41 Coloradans are currently contagious with the virus and the demand for hospital ICU beds could exceed capacity in January.

Remote learning creates its own set of challenges for some families grappling with balancing jobs, disengaged students and internet reliability. The governor’s task force — which includes teachers, superintendents, health officials and parents — is supposed to provide feedback to help the state and public health leaders develop ideas for safe school reopenings. 

“We know that for many kids and frankly also for many teachers, the classroom is one of the safest places,” Polis said Wednesday. “And we want to make sure that we can do all we can do in that controlled environment to really make sure that we don’t have an additional semester as chaotic as this one is.”

In recent days, superintendents have pushed back on pressure to reopen schools, saying state rules push schools towards closures. Schools have faced chaos trying to maintain staffing levels and safe classrooms while complying with quarantine rules.

The task force, which will meet at least once a week, plans to talk about measures that both have and haven’t worked across the state in 2020 to decide on best practices.

“I think our school leaders will share that they have never worked more closely with their local health departments — and that is a positive thing,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association and a member of the task force. “So that is something that we would obviously want to continue going forward.”

Polis also said there has been a “strong, collaborative relationship with teachers and with paraprofessionals” for districts that have successfully returned to in-person learning.

“We need, of course, the support of community members, parents, teachers, schools, districts and others, to really help make sure that we have ... the right protocols in the right place at the right time, to keep students and teachers safe, and make sure that our kids’ future is not yet another casualty of this awful pandemic,” he explained.

The Colorado Department of Education said last week it is allocating $15 million in grants to help cover the cost of school reopenings, including air ventilation improvements, personal protective equipment and plexiglass.

The state has also updated its tools to help school officials determine who needs to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure.

As of Tuesday evening, Colorado has more than 206,439 documented COVID-19 cases and the virus has killed at least 2,466 people in the state.