Polis 'optimistic' but not certain about schools re-opening in August

Announcement comes day after warning educators of possible long delay

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Signaling again how long COVID-19 may disrupt life in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis said he expects in-person classes to resume at the state's schools in the fall, but acknowledged that it isn't certain and that schools could stay closed until 2021.

“There's nobody who can guarantee that that's going to happen, and of course, school districts should plan for different contingencies,” Polis said at an April 22 news conference.

His comments came a day after he held a conference call with all of Colorado's public-school district superintendents, advising them in part to prepare for the possibility that in-person classes may not start again until January.

“But I am very optimistic that in-classroom instruction will begin in August — not in exactly the same way,” Polis said at his news conference, noting that different desk configurations and modified passing times for students may be part of the new social distancing guidelines that shape what school looks like for the foreseeable future.

“We're going to work very closely with school districts, with teachers, with superintendents, with principals” to figure that out, Polis added.

State officials will hammer out guidelines and implement them over the summer rather than rushing to issue them for the remaining weeks of this school year, Polis said.

“Trying to get something out the door and train people only to have one week left of school didn't make sense,” Polis said.

The governor signed an executive order April 22 extending the shutdown of normal in-person classes until the end of this school year at all public and private elementary and secondary schools in Colorado, including public preschools on public school campuses. Generally, that includes P-12 education.

Districts weigh in

School districts around the Denver metro area reflected Polis' caution when questioned by Colorado Community Media reporters.

It's too early to make decisions about the fall, but a late start could be in the cards, Littleton Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ewert said. What public health officials and the governor's office see in data about the virus' spread will influence decisions, he added.

“LPS will prepare for the worst-case scenario, which would be to continue with distance learning, but we will hope for the best, which would be open on a regular schedule. Other considerations floating around the state are opening late,” Ewert said. That could mean starting school after Labor Day, he continued.

Other ideas include “hybrid models,” where only a portion of the students come to school daily and alternate days, Ewert said.

“Nothing is off the table, and no decisions will be made for quite some time,” Ewert said.

Englewood Schools officials "don't have a crystal ball," Superintendent Wendy Rubin said, but they are preparing for several different scenarios.

Those include "beginning our year with remote learning again and including beginning with modified schedules for all kids coming back but having requirements around masks or having temperatures taken before coming into school," Rubin said.

Cherry Creek School District is “planning for and hoping for” a return to in-class learning in fall, but the district also is preparing for the possibility that schools are required to stay closed, said Abbe Smith, district spokeswoman.

“Our goal is to have a system in place to easily implement (online) learning if necessary at any point during next school year due to coronavirus,” Smith said.

Denver Public Schools didn't directly mention plans for the fall but nodded to uncertainty in the coming months in a statement.

“DPS leadership is continuing to develop contingency plans for the various scenarios and health precautions we could be facing over the next several months, with the overriding priority always being the health and well-being of our students and staff,” Winna MacLaren, a spokesperson for DPS, said in a statement. “It is important that we prepare for various possible options, while we hope to be able to reopen as soon as possible and welcome our students back into our schools.”

The Douglas County School District is working closely with local health partners, the Colorado Department of Education and the governor's office, a district spokeswoman said in a statement. 

“We will continue to closely monitor the situation as it evolves and make any decisions in regard to fall learning in alignment with our partners. We will share that information with our families as soon as decisions are made,” the spokeswoman said.

Jeffco Public Schools officials didn't respond directly to requests for comment. But in a Facebook Live video April 23, district Superintendent Jason Glass raised the possibility of continued remote learning as one of "three different approaches to this that are being considered. One is that you just start school again just like it was. Another is you don’t do in-person schooling at all, you only go to remote leaning. And the third route is some hybrid of the two.

He added: "We are probably in the world of the hybrid where we try to create some in-person learning opportunities, but because of the restrictions placed on us because of the virus and trying to maintain public health and keep our students and our staff safe, … school is probably going to look different. And so we have to think of alternative schedules, alternative days, the blending of remote learning and in-person learning. We’re making every effort to stand up in-person learning in the fall. You can look for the release of plans related to that some time soon after our school year ends."

The prospect of students participating in sports this fall “is very realistic,” Polis said. Officials will work with the Colorado High School Activities Association and with others to figure that out, the governor added.

“The fans are a little bit harder, right? It depends on venues and spacing and distancing and how many people go, but of course we want to get to 'yes' and figure out a way that (fans can watch) in a safe way,” Polis said.

Reporters Jessica Gibbs, David Gilbert, Christina Steadman, Joseph Rios and Casey Van Divier contributed.

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