How to school children during the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked fierce debate among local community members in the Douglas County School District. At recent school board meetings, public comment …
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How to school children during the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked fierce debate among local community members in the Douglas County School District.
At recent school board meetings, public comment filled with emotional pleas from teachers, students and parents. Here are local voices on each learning model and why the proponents of each feel theirs is the best path forward for schools at the time being.
Maria Volker, a Highlands Ranch High School teacher, said shifting from the current remote learning to hybrid learning should wait until teachers can be vaccinated, something that may not happen until March.
“The kids are learning so much better this semester because they have gotten used to (remote learning) and the teachers have gotten used to it,” she said. “I have found much more success remotely. I never thought I would say that.”
Volker called the district’s first semester, mostly conducted in hybrid learning, chaotic. She had to quarantine twice. Her students also were in and out of quarantine. Then the district announced a switch to full remote learning to finish the semester amid the pandemic’s third wave.
She wants students to have more consistency and feels like she can reach more of her students through full remote learning. Although they are not in-person, she can gather her entire class on a screen and help them socialize that way, she said.
The 61-year-old is also nervous by the emergence of new mutations in the virus.
“Can I get any more scared? Are we now guaranteeing quarantine because it’s much more infectious?,” she said.
Ethan Reed, 17, is a senior at Legend High School who joined several district students during the Jan. 19 board meeting in advocating against a return to hybrid learning.
Reed told Colorado Community Media his concern is twofold — that any in-person learning continues to pose health risks during the pandemic and that hybrid is less effective than remote learning.
In hybrid learning, he accomplished little during students’ independent learning days, he said, and felt like he learned less compared to full remote or in-person.
Reed also worries the introduction of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus in Colorado could lead to more spread within schools. He expects any in-person learning could cause a rise in cases and worries that will force the district to pivot plans again, sending students back once again to remote learning.
Reed called social distancing in high schools nearly nonexistent, saying it’s proven difficult to keep students three or six feet apart.
“I know quarantines are going to be happening and popping up quite a bit,” he said.
For Taylor Witte, a 14-year-old sophomore at Mountain Vista High School, hybrid is the best route until the district can return to in-person learning. The prospect of ending the semester in remote learning is breeding pessimism among students, she said.
Remote education has its drawbacks too, she said.
“Being on a screen for seven hours consecutively and then being assigned work for hours on end,” she said.
High school education is dependent on the experience, she said, like being able to do labs in-person for a science course.
Hybrid learning offers more structure, and some in-person learning is better than none, she said. She understands there are health risks amid the pandemic but also trusts the district’s sanitizing and cleaning protocols, she said.
“I think that given that the pandemic has been in effect for this long, we have to be willing to at least semi-normalize ourselves to the circumstances,” she said. “If restaurants are able to be open, then I think education should be prioritized.”
Revised quarantine guidelines, which now require 10 days in quarantine compared to the previous 14 and can release people who test negative sooner than that, also opens the door for hybrid, Witte said.
“Overall I think students on the secondary level are just looking for a high school experience, even from an education perspective,” she said.
Interim Superintendent Corey Wise also has advocated for a return to hybrid, although the board of education on Jan. 19 decided to break with his recommendation and keep students in remote learning through at least early February.
Wise said the district would be able to sustain hybrid learning until March, when teachers are expected to be vaccinated. The superintendent has also said consistently the district does not believe schools are sources of significant spread in the community, and that most exposures came from outside buildings.
Returning to in-person
Joyel Chambers has spoken at several board meetings urging a full, in-person option for families.
Her son Joey, 17, is a junior at Douglas County High School and in the severe special needs program. That means he gets more in-person education than general education students, she said, but quarantines took him out of the classroom twice last semester and once this semester.
With the various disruptions, Chambers said Joey has not had a full two weeks of in-person instruction since August. Teachers did “a fabulous job” of trying to continue Joey’s education during quarantine but it still proved ineffective, she said.
“He doesn’t learn anything in that environment,” she said. “If he is not able to learn in-person he is not getting his education.”
Chambers also believes a full, in-person model can be carried out safely under state guidelines. She wants the district to compromise by allowing a full remote learning option and a full in-person option, allowing students and teachers to choose which they are comfortable with.
As for hybrid, Chambers said some in-person learning is better than none. Although she understands it’s difficult for teachers, she said, she believes it’s better for students than remote.
“I think they need to come up with a plan tomorrow, today, have an emergency meeting and put it in place immediately,” she said.
Calls to reopen schools have also spurred talk of recall efforts.
Castle Rock resident Nate Ormond announced an open invitation during public comment on Jan. 19 for people to join a virtual town hall discussing a recall of board members.
Ormond told Colorado Community Media his group plans to recall four board members — Susan Meek, Elizabeth Hanson, David Ray and Christina Ciancio-Schor.
A district spokeswoman provided a statement from those board directors, saying the board's focus will remain on students as directors work with district leadership to implement "the most consistent, effective, sustainable and safe educational delivery possible for our students" amid the pandemic.
"We have not received notice that this effort has been officially recognized. However, we are fully aware that emotions are running high with regards to the best educational delivery for our students," the statement said. "We will continue to listen and consider all diverse perspectives (students, staff and parents) while adhering to public health guidance."
Ormond would need to gather a total of 80,000 signatures, or 20,000 for each board member. He has publicly pledged $100,000 of his personal funds for the effort but estimated his group will need to raise roughly $1 million to pursue recalls of all four directors.
Reopening schools is not the only issue driving the effort, but it was a significant one, he said. Ormond said board directors had the summer to plan for reopening schools fully but continue showing a “broad lack of leadership.”
The virus is deadly for at-risk groups and poses a legitimate health concern, but the state has issued sufficient guidelines to mitigate risks, he said. Echoing Wise’s comments, Ormond said there is not data showing schools are superspreader sites.
“For whatever reason they just can’t seem to put together a coherent and executable plan,” he said.
This story has been updated with a statement from board directors.
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