As nearby districts go online, Littleton Public Schools hopes to stay in-person

Despite quarantines and climbing cases, district officials say schools still safe


As COVID-19 cases surge and metro area school districts switch back to remote learning, Littleton Public Schools officials say they want to maintain in-person learning as long as possible.

As of the afternoon of Nov. 5, the district had at at least 336 students and 65 staff members in quarantine, with 18 active confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and another 15 cases among staff. On Nov. 6, the district announced Heritage and Littleton high schools would go fully remote until at least Nov. 30 in the face of spiking case numbers and a lack of substitute teachers.

Meanwhile, the district's COVID tracker, a virus-tracking metric composed of several data points meant to guide district decisions about in-person learning, had been solidly in the red zone — the lowest ranking — for a week as of Nov. 5, after degrading from the green zone in mid-October.

See the district's COVID tracker page.

Several area school districts, including Westminster, Englewood and Cherry Creek, have announced transitions back to fully-remote learning, but Littleton superintendent Brian Ewert said he wants to take a different approach: continuing to quarantine groups of students and staff, prioritizing individual school closures over a districtwide closure.

Ewert said that while the COVID tracker recommends remote learning once the metrics dip into the red zone, it's not the only factor in the decision-making process.

“I have five schools that have seen no cases and no quarantines — how do I stand in front of the community and shut them down while everything is normal?” Ewert said. “To go all remote I would have to hear from my principals and my cabinet that it's becoming unmanageable. If the system was about to collapse, we would have to shut it down. We're not there yet.”

'Not safe or sustainable'

Amanda Crosby, the head of the district's teacher's union, said teachers are growing concerned.

“This is not safe or sustainable,” Crosby said. “It's been ebbing and flowing for weeks, but now there's no more ebb — it's just flow.”

Crosby said the 15 teachers with active cases is a spike over just the week before, and said quarantines are coming faster than ever.

The district's COVID information page shows in the first four days of November, the district sent out 12 quarantine notices for 11 schools or programs. The district sent out only two such notices in the same period in October.

See the district's COVID information page.

Crosby said teachers are exhausted, as they're expected to cover four in-person days for two separate groups of students per week, simultaneous online learning for students in quarantine, a weekly all-remote day, and filling in for duties normally handled by classified staff like covering recess and lunch.

“Teachers are run down,” Crosby said. “It's hard when dealing with a virus — you need strength and rest.”

The social network

For some parents, however, in-person learning is a welcome component of school in a tumultuous year.

Suzanne Frisch, who has a son at Newton Middle School and a daughter at Heritage High School, said her children benefit from spending time with teachers and fellow students.

“It's important they get to see other human beings,” Frisch said. “My son in particular — he gets tired of spending all his time with only grownups.”

Frisch said she trusts district administrators to make the right calls about in-person learning, and said she's been impressed with how diligently students are wearing face masks.

“They're better about it than adults are,” she said. “They're not the ones complaining about how awful and unfair masks are.”

Frisch said teachers seem to be doing an excellent job teaching online, and said youngsters are responding.

“Teachers are showing such flexibility and creativity,” she said. “There's teaching and learning going on. Despite the chaos, everyone is keeping their eyes on the prize. If we have to go all-remote, I won't be mad.”

In-person schooling, Frisch said, is actually only two days a week -- the other three are online. Some, like Frisch's daughter Natalie, a senior at Heritage, are only on school grounds a few hours a week. 

Natalie said sometimes it's hard to keep up motivation in online school.

“Online school plus senioritis is interesting,” she said. “I don't always want to do the work in the first place, even less so when it doesn't feel real.”

She said her in-person days have been a boon for her AP classes, which are more challenging and more difficult to translate entirely online. She added many of her fellow students crave in-person days.

“I don't mind spending so much time at home, but some of us need those in-person days, or else they get really sad,” Natalie said.

Virus counts climbing

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are surging — Gov. Jared Polis said in a Nov. 5 press conference the virus was circulating at its highest rate since the pandemic began, with as many as one in every 100 Coloradans infected. The same day, the state passed its April peak for confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Though Polis asked Coloradans to only interact with members of their own household through the month of November, Ewert said that stood in contrast to earlier comments.

“In previous conversations, the governor said schools are essential, and to do whatever you can to keep kids in school as long as possible,” Ewert said. “The amount of transmission within our schools is incredibly low.”

Ewert said the district is aware of four cases of in-school transmission, one from a special education teacher working closely with a student, and the rest from a student who infected others while playing basketball.

“I'd argue it's safer to be in school than out in the community,” he said.

School board President Jack Reutzel said he's committed to continuing in-person learning as well.

“The board has heard overwhelming pleas from parents to keep kids in school, and in fact, pleas to get them back in even more than we have,” Reutzel said. “We've also heard from teachers who agree with that. We're trying to be responsible for students who absolutely benefit from in-person learning, and trying to protect everyone. We're trying to balance a lot of interests.”

Reutzel said he appreciated Crosby's position, but said while she and the teachers' union had been opposed to in-person learning since last summer, Reutzel felt the return to in-person school had gone well.

“We value their position, but we're guided by doing what's best for students,” Reutzel said. “There are other constituencies to consider here.”


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