Douglas County School Board approves full, in-person learning for secondary students

Transition to take place March 22


A plan to send Douglas County middle and high schools back to in-person learning, five days a week has now received the stamp of approval from board directors, as well as support from principals and the local public health agency.

Douglas County School Board directors voted unanimously on March 2 to support interim Superintendent Corey Wise’s recommendation that secondary students launch 100% in-person learning on March 22, the start of DCSD’s fourth quarter.

“It’s time to get back,” Wise said.

Under the plan, the district will still require masks in its buildings. Social distancing will take place wherever possible and targeted quarantines will continue, Wise said. Students can expect other changes. Classrooms will be fuller — some will have up to 30 students — and lunchrooms will be more crowded than in hybrid learning.

Elementary students began full, in-person learning on Jan. 5. Middle and high school students started the second semester with full remote learning until they began a “Hybrid 2.0” model in early February.

Board President David Ray said district leadership and staff have been planning for a full return to in-person learning for nearly a year, starting under former Superintendent Thomas Tucker before Wise took over.

Ray said district staff will continue working to answer lingering questions about conducting in-person learning during the pandemic.

“We know this is difficult, we know this is hard, we know that this is not a perfect solution,” Ray said.

Director Krista Holtzmann said staff have worked tirelessly to boost testing capabilities, implement new quarantine protocols and get staff vaccinated “much quicker than any one of us could have anticipated.”

Director Elizabeth Hanson said the plan would not have garnered her support without knowing all staff that work directly with students have either been inoculated or have appointments.

Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John Douglas gave Wise’s recommendations his support, calling it a “thoughtful” approach.

“I think the plan that you all have outlined to me makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Douglas said masking and good ventilation will be key to lessening transmission of COVID-19 during full, in-person learning and encouraged taking class outdoors when weather permits.

Lunch time will likely be one of the riskiest settings during the school day, he said, as students sit in close quarters and remove masks to eat. He said sign-in sheets at lunchtime would help with targeted quarantines.

Douglas recommended students get tested often, and particularly if displaying cold or other symptoms of illness. He described himself as a “big believer” in vaccinating against the virus down to the age vaccines have been tested in children, which he said is 16 or 18 depending on the vaccine.

Principals expressed everywhere from excitement to cautious optimism at the thought of going back full time.

Highlands Ranch High School Principal Chris Page said he is confident students will stay committed to following COVID-19 precautions once back full time. The task will be more challenging with all students in buildings and quarantines will be inevitable, he said, but schools will implement mitigation strategies as much as possible.

“Kids understand we’ve got to take some extra steps to make sure we’re not going to lose this opportunity,” he said.

Students who spoke during the meeting voiced both support for in-person learning and concern about the plan, particularly because the transition takes place immediately after spring break.

District student Barret Mosley said in-person will allow students to get help from teachers who are in the same room, and that attention spans suffer during remote learning time.

“I think (in-person) is better for us and our mental sanity,” he said.

John Niedringhaus, who attends eighth grade at Sierra Middle School, predicted families will travel during spring break, increasing their risk of exposure and potentially leading to a spike in quarantines early in the fourth quarter.

“This seems like a lot of added stress on everyone that could be avoided,” he said. “What is the real harm in waiting one to two weeks after break?”

Student advisory group member Emma Peters told directors the group organized a survey asking secondary students about their preference between full in-person and hybrid learning.

Among 1,100 middle school students, 63% preferred full in-person learning.

High school students were more divided, although a majority still approved of in-person learning. Of 2,800 high school students, 53% preferred in-person learning and 47% preferred hybrid.

A return to in-person learning has been a point of contention among the district community, helping lead to a recall effort aimed at four board directors — Ray, Hanson, Director Susan Meek and Director Christina Ciancio-Schor.

Nate Ormond, a member of the Road2Recall committee, said the group would suspend its recall effort if directors voted on March 2 to resume 100% in-person learning.

Nearby districts have recently contemplated or announced a switch to in-person learning as counties approached benchmarks for moving to Level Blue on the state’s COVID-19 dial.

As of March 2, Douglas County met two out of three requirements to move from Level Yellow to Level Blue, according to the state’s website.

Douglas County’s one-week average positive rate and hospitalization rate hovered in the Level Blue range, while the county’s one-week cumulative incidence rate remained at 140.8. Counties must show an incidence rate of 100 or fewer to be Level Blue.

Wise said logistically he believes the district can sustain 100% in-person learning and credited improving COVID-19 trends with moving plans along.

“It’s an adjustment but we’ll be ready,” he said.


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