Amid pressure from district families but fearful pushback from some educators, the Douglas County School District has announced plans to get its youngest learners back to full in-person learning, five days a week as early as next month.
The board unanimously passed a motion on Sept. 15 that aims to bring elementary students back to school for 100% in-person learning by Oct. 19. Full online learning will remain an option for students as well.
“I think we have to be the bold ones tonight and we have to accept the responsibility and we need to stop deflecting it on to our staff,” school board President David Ray said. “We are the elected officials. We do need to take action.”
Public comment in recent weeks has told a tale of two districts — one where many families are eager to see children back to in-person learning or even angered by the hybrid model, but also one where teachers are concerned for their safety, petrified by the thought of bringing students back full time.
School board directors said COVID-19 data is driving the decision. The board noted a number of metrics on its COVID-19 dashboard — which summarizes information like incidence rates and positivity rates and is meant to gauge the pandemic’s severity within school district boundaries — look favorable.
District staff are expected to provide an update on schools’ readiness to execute that plan by Oct. 6. The motion also left the option open for schools to return to in-person learning sooner.
District staff told directors there are countless logistical issues schools will need to address before bringing students back, but they did not appear to oppose the plan.
Rather, Assistant Superintendent Ted Knight stressed the district needs to give schools adequate time to prepare and cautioned against setting too quick a timeline.
Director Anthony Graziano was first to suggest bringing elementary students back and suggested an original target date of Oct. 6, although he said he was open to other timelines.
“There are so many components of this and I think the biggest mistake that we can make is set a date that is too aggressive and then have to push that back, similar to how we did with e-learning,” Knight said. “I really don’t want to put us in a position where we over promise and under deliver again.”
Earlier this year, the district delayed the start to online classes by one week after the program was plagued by technological issues and staffing shortages.
Knight also said the district needed more time to talk with school staff about what they need to feel comfortable returning to in-person learning.
Staffing could be one of the more significant issues to work through, Executive Director of Schools Ian Wells said. Some schools lost building teachers when they reassigned staff to full online instruction.
The district will likely need to hire additional teachers, Knight said, and reshuffle teaching assignments based on class sizes.
Then there are tasks like bringing enough furniture back into the currently socially-distanced buildings and rearranging classrooms to accommodate more students safely.
One of the two acting superintendents, Matt Reynolds, said the district would want to engage with families immediately to assess if students who left district-run schools for private or homeschooling during the pandemic might want to reenroll at neighborhood buildings once full in-person schooling is available.
“I think we’ve got to be realistic about all the things that have to happen,” Knight said. “I know we have many parents who want this to happen tomorrow but I think they want it to happen well.”