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Class during coronavirus: Schools in and around Denver make back-to-school plans

Denver Public Schools, and Jefferson County and Boulder Valley school districts know the 20-21 school year is approaching. They're making adjustments for COVID-19.

DENVER — Stop the "Back to School" commercials.

Aurora Public Schools announced on Wednesday that the district will delay one week, with most schools starting August 18.

It's not the only district considering new plans for the first week of classes in the 2020-2021 school year.

This is what some other districts are considering:

DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Earlier in the day, Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Susana Cordova put out an email to educators saying the district was considering delaying the start of school until August 24.

COVID-19 was the indirect reason.

"The heat is definitely an issue, with roughly 50 buildings of ours that don't have air conditioning," said DPS Deputy Superintendent Mark Ferrandino. "Usually, in some of those buildings we don't have air conditioning in, we can use swamp coolers or fans that help to circulate the air. Those are not recommended."

DPS has a 61-page "District Implementation Plan" that gets updated in real-time "based on newly available data and guidance from public health officials."

It states that fans and swamp coolers are not to be used because of the coronavirus.

"It has been advised that these types of devices may pose a risk of promulgating the spread," the plan states.

"The plan that you've seen that’s online is getting updated on a regular basis based on the best information we have at that time," said Ferrandino.

The plan details that buses will run with one-third capacity, with one student per seat, for a maximum capacity of 24 students. Siblings will be able to share one seat.

Students will have a health screening before they board the bus. The students and bus drivers will wear masks for the entire ride.

There's a warning in the guide that playground equipment won't be disinfected because of staffing limitations.

"Students and staff should ensure hands are washed frequently after use of any playground equipment," the plan states.

"We have lots of job postings for lots of part-time custodians," said Ferrandino.

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The plan also details health office regulations.

"Each school must have a health office with one cot per 400 students, a dedicated bathroom within 50 feet for health office use only, a sink with running hot and cold water, easily cleanable surfaces, and an isolated area for sick students to be separated from well students," the plan states.

DPS will also ban singing and wind instruments.

When asked if the largest district in the state is under pressure, since other districts will likely follow its lead, Ferrandino said the district is working with other metro area districts and schools districts around the country.

"Ultimately, we are working with Denver Public Health and Environment, as well as doctors at Denver Health, as well as our families, our staff here in Denver, to make decisions that are the best for Denver," said Ferrandino.

DPS has at least 13 quarantine scenarios if there is a positive COVID-19 case. Each scenario requires the confirmation of a positive case, and the district is not providing students with COVID-19 tests.

"We are also in conversations about testing for staff on a regular basis," said Ferrandino. "We're hopeful that we can announce soon that we can provide testing for all school-based staff before school starts, and during the year, similar to what Aurora Public Schools announced yesterday."

On Tuesday, Aurora Public Schools announced that it would provide twice-a-month testing for educators.

"Schools provide a lot more than just the education that they're seeing in the classroom with," said Ferrandino. "We do not want to open up schools if we do not feel that it is safe both for students and staff. We're not going to eliminate risk, that is not a reality in life, but our goal is to mitigate risk as much as possible."

BOULDER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT

Boulder Valley School District has a 17-page reintroduction plan listed on its website.

It's broken down by phases.

Phase One is how the district ended the 2019-20 school year, with no in-person learning starting in March.

Phase Five is likely when there is a COVID-19 vaccine and school returns to normal.

In between, the phases mix in-person and remote learning, and also change how and where school meals are served.

"There will be opportunity for some students on certain days to go to the lunchroom or to the gym, when available, masked with six-foot distance, and other times they may eat in their classroom or have their special in their classroom," said Margaret Crespo, area superintendent for the southwest part of Boulder Valley School District.

Like DPS, there are contingencies for positive COVID-19 cases in the schools, but students will not be tested by the district.

"At this point, that has not been required or suggested by the health departments," said Crespo. "We're trying to make sure that students have an experience that is pleasant and school-like, at the same time, making sure that everybody is very safe and follows the protocols that are outlined for us."

JEFFERSON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

Jefferson County Schools is also preparing for in-school learning, but mindful that teachers and students may not want to return right away.

"Sure, it's possible we have a labor issue right at the beginning of school. We'll have to manage our way through that. And I think that's one of the disruptions that, potentially, could occur over the course of this next school year," said Superintendent Dr. Jason Glass. "We're trying to match up the teachers and staff who request a remote assignment, with the students who request a remote assignment, and then do the same thing for the in-person staff and the in-person students."

Part of going back to in-school learning is to also help students who need to learn in-person.

"We had struggles with engagement from kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, kids with disabilities struggled with that environment, a lot of families had a hard time with it," said Glass.

Glass said that COVID-19 testing still has too much of a lag time to be the immediate solution.

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"The testing needs to be more widespread and available, and the results have to be turned around much more quickly than they are right now for that to be much of a factor in terms of mitigating the virus in schools," said Glass.

Plans can change overnight for each school district. DPS, Boulder Valley and JeffCo all said advanced notice would be given to parents and students, but conditions can change much quicker.

"When we've seen these other countries that have successfully reopened, they've used a number of different virus mitigation strategies, almost all of which we're incorporating into our plans that we have here, so we're modeling our practice after places that have been successful in reopening. The difference is, those nations were able to get the virus under control in the larger community. That's something the United States has struggled with," said Glass.

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