Colorado’s second-largest district is gearing up to return all middle and high school students to full-time in-person learning, with a return date announcement expected this week. A fully-remote option is still expected to be offered to students who choose.
Jefferson County’s interim superintendent Kristopher Schuh told the district’s school board at a meeting Tuesday that he is still gathering feedback from secondary school principals, staff and the community on the amount of planning time it would take to fully ramp up in-person learning. Elementary school students are currently back full time but nearly 45,000 middle and high-school students are in a hybrid learning model, learning in-school part-time and at home part-time.
School principals gathered feedback last week from staff and are figuring out which students prefer a 100 percent in-person or remote option.
“Once we establish this date and implement the 6-12 [grade level] in-person option, we do not want to have that going back and forth,” Schuh told the board.
The district, which has 86,000 total students, is examining data on how many school staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and whether there are sufficient buses and drivers to transport students.
Health care providers have sent invitations to get the COVID-19 vaccine to more than 11,000 staff members. They have been asked to voluntarily fill out a google form once they get a shot. Schuh said 3,793 staff members have reported receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. The district has 14,275 employees.
There are other hurdles to overcome. Schuh said there are currently sufficient buses and drivers to serve elementary students who are in-person and the older students in hybrid learning. It’s still uncertain if there will be enough drivers and buses to serve all students when schools are at full capacity, but Schuh said school officials are working with health authorities to help transport students safely.
“That was a worry, how can we now transport twice as many students when we have limitations from the CDC regarding the number of students we can have on a bus?"
But as the district moves to reopen school buildings, one group of JeffCo students isn’t so sure.
The students have gathered 1,500 signatures opposing the district’s push for a full return. They say the hybrid option is the safest option to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The petition asks to delay fully in-person learning for middle and high school students until August 2021.
Morgan Fritzler, a junior at Lakewood High School, started the petition with fellow students. She said she fears entirely in person learning will increase the chances of more outbreaks and the chances of returning to fully remote learning for the entire school, “which is detrimental to the mental health of JeffCO students as well as the learning quality.”
Fritzler said there are about 15 people in her classes in the current hybrid model and said she worries there is not enough space to physically distance in in-person learning.
“There would be a greater chance of spread of the virus,” she said.
Fritzler said she’s read that teenagers likely won’t get the vaccine until at least the fall of 2021.
“Until that happens, we’re both vulnerable ourselves to contracting COVID-19 as well as spreading it to our families, many of which are immunocompromised and medically fragile.”
The petition states that “the dangers of this plan for students far outweigh any benefits.”
The Jefferson County Education Association, the teacher’s union, said it supports returning after spring break, but no earlier than April 12th. It said it supports the recommendations of the JeffCo Collaborative Monitoring Committee, which is made up of educators, parents, students and administrators. Those recommendations include waiting until the county has even less community transmission of the coronavirus; having staff fully vaccinated with both shots plus two weeks before returning fully to in-person learning; and continuing with mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
“Students in higher grade levels transmit the virus more like adults than their younger counterparts do,” the union said in a statement. “This makes planning more complex on many levels, and it is critical that educators, administrators, students, and families have time to properly plan and prepare for the return to 100 percent in-person learning.”
Littleton Public Schools announced Friday that their district is planning a return to full-time in-person learning for all students beginning March 15, just before the district’s spring break.
“We’ve heard from students, parents, and staff that a return to a more normal in-person school experience every day would be the very best thing we could do for our community’s children,” the district said in a letter to families.
The district called resuming in-person learning a “heavy lift,” but cited improving COVID spread data in the community and schools as one of the reasons for the return. District officials said they expect all employees will get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine over the next few weeks. As of Friday, nearly 40 percent of LPS employees had received their first dose of the vaccine. Preschool and elementary students are already in in-person learning in the district five days per week.