DENVER — The Denver Public School District (DPS), the state's largest school district, announced that masks will be required as students return for full in-person learning in August at all district-run, innovation and charter schools.
"'Masks are uncomfortable so we won't use them,' that's not going to be a choice," said DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova. "I think it's really important. We see school systems around the globe where students are wearing masks and they're adjusting to what that's like."
The news of full in-person learning comes amid the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down all schools across the state and forced them to end the last school year remotely.
Cordova said the decision to return in this way was based on "compelling data" of low transmission among young people and lessons learned from what schools around the world have done. She also said it was important because students rely on the school system for other things, such as meals, and explained there was widespread negative feedback about a potential hybrid of in-person and remote learning.
"We have really thought about the hybrid model, which would have allowed [us] to have potentially fewer kids in schools," she said. "We don't actually think that would provide a safer environment. On the days students are not with us, there is no guarantee they're following the safe practices they would be at school."
DPS said its educator-led Return to School Workgroup worked with health agencies to come up with the plan for the new school year. Cordova outlined how things will look different in the fall.
The changes include:
- Mask requirement, unless there's a medical reason, and then strict physical distancing would be enforced
- Daily health screenings and temperature checks for all students and staff
- Adjusted schedules to keep students together
- Limited movement during school day
- Check-ins for handwashing throughout the day
- Additional hand sanitizer stations
- Plexiglass dividers for student/teacher conferences
The district will also have a policy in place for a mandatory 14-day quarantine following a positive case of COVID-19 for all students or staff that had contact with the infected person. During that time, she said, they would switch to a short-term online learning model.
"We know there will be times when a class needs to move to remote [learning] — that's really when there's a documented infection, and it's a short period of time the teacher and the kids would go remote," Cordova said.
Remote learning options
Officials also acknowledged that some families will still not be comfortable sending their children back for in-person instruction, and said it will offer a full-time online option for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Cordova said they'll use lessons learned last spring to improve the online learning experience. She said the live video lessons worked best, but also received feedback about the importance of making video-taped lessons available.
"So that if they are not available for the real-time class, they don't miss out on the only opportunity to do that," she said. "For example, we heard from countless families whose grandparents were watching grandchildren and couldn't figure out computers and couldn't get to the lesson until the evening."
They also plan to limit the number of platforms (such as Zoom, Google and others) that can be used for online learning after getting feedback from parents. In addition to offering online learning for students, DPS said it will also accommodate any staff members who might not be able to work in person, perhaps because they're considered high risk.
"We will be looking at what kind of match we can have for teachers who can't teach in person and students who aren't able to come in person," Cordova said. "At the end of getting that data, if we need to determine reassigning teachers or hiring teachers through CARES funding, that is something we will consider at that point."
There will not be an option for preschool students for the fall semester. Families who choose the online option will not give up their enrollment at the school they planned to attend for the 2020-21 school year.
DPS has worked on backup plans in case there are spikes of COVID-19 that would require them to return to online learning.
Most schools will open on Aug. 17, but parents are asked to check the calendar of the child's school.
The district, like many others, is also dealing with the financial fallout from the pandemic. Last week the district reached an agreement with the teacher's union (DCTA) to help address budget concerns.
DPS had asked the union to revisit a deal made last year that gave a pay raise to teachers. The 2019 agreement followed a three-day-long teachers' strike.
Districts around the metro area have slowly been releasing their plans for the next year. Most of them have said they plan to return to in-person learning, at least for their youngest students, while also offering online options.
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