March 12 was supposed to be the opening night of "Guys and Dolls" at Heritage High School. Lillian Fuglei, a junior, was on run crew — the black-clad kids who swap out props and sets between scenes.
By lunchtime, Littleton Public Schools had canceled all after-school activities, part of rapidly escalating efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Every theater kid was crying,” Fuglei said. “We were so close. We were mourning all the work we did.”
At the end of the day came the announcement that spring break would start that weekend — a week early.
“The hallways were louder than I'd ever seen before,” Fuglei said.
The next day, she and the rest of the yearbook staff spent a marathon afternoon compiling the chronicle of their school year. After sports, clubs and pep rallies, they hastily added two more pages: the pandemic.
Now, confined at home as the disease forces ever greater shutdowns, Fuglei will be among nearly 15,000 LPS students whose education will go online as hopes to return to the classroom dwindle.
'We beg for grace and patience'
“We're waiting for direction from the governor on reopening, but I'm skeptical given what we're seeing across the nation,” said Brian Ewert, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools. The district initially planned to close until March 30, but Gov. Jared Polis extended statewide school closures until at least April 17.
“We don't know about prom or graduation yet,” Ewert said. “With that in mind, out of disaster comes innovation.”
Teachers and administrators are scrambling to build an unprecedented online learning platform to meet the needs of students from kindergarten to senior year, and have it up and running by April 1.
“There will be mistakes made, and we beg for grace and patience from parents,” Ewert said. “This is a baptism by fire.”
The task ahead is daunting: transforming complex curricula into virtual formats, training teachers of varying subjects and technical know-how on the software, meeting state standards, figuring out how long lessons should be, building in attendance tracking, and making sure every student has access to a reliable internet connection.
The district doesn't know how many kids don't have internet access at home, Ewert said, but schools have piles of Chromebooks and a few dozen wifi “hot spots” to hand out to parents.
“The demands on us to perform at a high level will be great,” Ewert said. “We've never been pushed to this degree."
Lindsay Atkinson, a parent of a first-grader at Lenski Elementary, said she's glad the district is working on a program, but wishes the administrators had done more sooner.
“We've been in the dark this first week,” Atkinson said. “My main concern is that Superintendent Ewert is so concerned with equity. We can start before every child has a Chromebook. Lenski is a wealthy community. They can send our Chromebooks to where they're needed.”
Fuglei, the Heritage junior, said she's not sure how her classes will translate online.
“My intro to law class is all mock trials,” Fuglei said. “How do you do a mock trial online? My English class is about classroom discussion. It's not worksheets.”
Career and technical education students face a greater challenge, Ewert said. Students studying cosmetology, welding or auto repair will likely see their programs go on hiatus.
“We don't have answers for that yet,” Ewert said. “Most of those are run through Arapahoe Community College, which is closed as well. We're doing everything we can to figure that out.”
Meanwhile, Fuglei is still grappling with the idea that she might not be back in a classroom with her friends for months.
“I was supposed to go shopping for a prom dress soon,” Fuglei said. “I feel empty. Those experiences are just gone.”
The district has lots of other logistics to figure out. The Nutrition Services department spent the first week after the school closures handing out free breakfasts and lunches at East and Field elementaries — a program Ewert said will likely be expanded in coming weeks.
“As word gets out, the number of meals we hand out is climbing,” Ewert said. “The longer people are out of work, the more we expect we'll see families that need food during the week.”
It's too soon to say what the shutdown will cost the district, said Jack Reutzel, the president of the school board.
“We anticipate it will cost something, and we're ready to help with fund transfers from savings,” Reutzel said.
The district was already facing a $4 million budget shortfall in the coming school year that forced the district to eliminate 17 positions through retirements, layoffs or leaving vacant positions unfilled. The district pulled $1 million from savings over the winter to soften the blow of the shortfall, and has about $10 million remaining in reserves, Reutzel said.
Reutzel said he expects school construction projects around the district to continue unabated. LPS is in the middle of a massive effort to rebuild numerous schools around the district after voters approved a $298 capital improvement bond in 2018.
Among the events postponed by the district was a groundbreaking ceremony for the rebuild of Newton Middle School.
“If anything, this may loosen up the availability of construction workers and trades people,” Reutzel said.
Addressing the coronavirus crisis will require new levels collaboration between schools, parents and students, Reutzel said.
“Let's all rise to the challenge together,” Reutzel said.
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