Douglas County School District grapples with reopening

District delays start amid uncertainty about reentry plans

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The Douglas County School District has delayed the start to its school year by roughly a week as district staff and board members grapple with forming a reentry plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools will open on Aug. 17 as opposed to the previous start date of Aug. 12.

Superintendent Thomas Tucker announced the delay on July 14, one day after an hours-long board meeting offered few answers about how the district plans to usher students back in the fall.

The district at this time intends to return with in-person learning, five days a week. Board directors on June 23 approved general concepts for reopening and contingency plans if in-person learning proves impossible.

But on July 13, board directors pressed Tucker and district staff for more details in the plan to reopen schools.

“We are at a point where parents need to have an exact understanding of what their child’s day is going to look like,” Director Elizabeth Hanson said.

Some directors including Hanson and Krista Holtzmann said they had hundreds of unanswered questions. Teachers had expressed panic and terror at the thought of returning on the information they had so far, board President David Ray said.

Ray posted to his Facebook page after the meeting saying the board would meet again on Saturday, July 25, in hopes staff will provide a clear picture of how schools will operate by then.

“Speaking as one board director, I believe until a multitude of questions received are answered, I will not endorse or support the reopening of school (regardless of whether online, in-person, or a hybrid),” Ray wrote.

Tucker released more information about reopening schools on July 17. Students will eat meals in the cafeteria, according to the update. Visitors to school will be limited. The district will provide face coverings to students and staff who need them.

More questions would be answered in the coming days, Tucker said. A “full plan document” would be released the week of July 20, he said, promising to unveil “specific safety protocols.”

“Thank you for your patience as we continue to navigate this process,” he said.

Also on July 20, state health and education issued new voluntary guidelines for school districts planning to resume physical learning in the fall, recommending that students 11 and over should wear masks and that high-school class sizes should be limited to help maintain social distancing.

Debating when to start

At the July 13 meeting, the district had about 20 days before students were slated to return on Aug. 12.

“I’m having anxiety right now because I don’t think we can be ready by (Aug. 12) and I don’t think our staff can be ready,” Ray said.

Director Christina Ciancio-Schor suggested delaying school until Aug. 24 but possibly Sept. 7. Director Kevin Leung wondered if the district could start the school year remotely and observe neighboring districts, to learn from their experiences starting back in person.

Denver Public Schools announced July 17 it will also delay its school year and start the school year remotely.

Director Anthony Graziano suggested approving a plan to open Aug. 12 as presented on July 13. There will not be a perfect approach to reopening schools, Graziano said, and he doubted more time would help the district find better answers.

“I feel like what’s being proposed is a very legitimate, very sound course of action,” he said.

Tucker said the district would continue surveying the school community in an effort to learn how many students will enroll in its eLearning program and how many plan to return in-person.

The district will provide an eLearning option for students unable to return in person or uncomfortable about doing so. Chief Academic Officer Marlena Gross-Taylor has said the program will differ from remote education conducted in the spring and that teachers will not be expected to manage both online and in-person instruction.

But Hanson pointed out the community had little information about the eLearning program other than that it was promised to be “robust and comprehensive.”

She wanted to know which curriculum the district will use and what sort of schedule students would follow. Would children roll out of bed at noon, she asked, or be expected to log online at 8:30 a.m.?

“With all due respect, a survey to parents tomorrow will provide worthless information to the district because, as a parent who likely has more information than a significant number of our families, I can’t decide what I’m going to do for my own children at this point,” Hanson said July 13. “The details of how this is implemented and what this looks like has not been provided.”

Tucker on July 17 released a list of Commonly Asked Questions famlies said they needed answered before choosing between eLearning and in-person learning. Students will be allowed to change their selection of in-person or eLearning if needed at the end of the semester.

Directors asked how extensively teacher input has been gathered. Ray noted about 40% of teachers surveyed to date said they did not want to return in-person or were unsure if the district should. The majority expressed interest in returning in-person.

Information sent to families and made public on July 14 and July 17 said the plan for in-person learning will focus on a number of precautions.

Face coverings will be encouraged among elementary students and required among middle school students, high school students, teachers and staff “unless physical distancing can be maintained.” Face coverings will be required on buses.

The district will also abide by an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis requiring face coverings for Coloradans older than 10 in public indoor places. The order is currently set to expire 30 days after July 16.

Polis said the state has acquired enough medical-grade masks to provide some to school districts.

That was expected to include “at least one mask per week per teacher,” he said. Details of the state’s plan to issue district masks were not immediately available.

Students will be required to complete daily health checks, filling out a form about symptoms and being sent home if they register a temperature of 100 degrees or higher.

The district’s eLearning program will include both live sessions with instructors and pre-recorded sessions. Attendance would be taken daily, and students will be graded based on 2020 Colorado Academic Standards. Tucker’s announcements did not specify what curriculum would be used in eLearning.

The district is still waiting on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environement, according to the updates.

Health director weighs in

Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John Douglas spoke to board members July 13 about the state of COVID-19 locally, but also expressed support for reopening schools.

Douglas said the district’s plan to return in-person made sense based on data available as of July 12. The risks involved in shutting down schools is great, he said, pointing to the weeks of remote education conducted during the 2019-20 school year.

“The price our kids paid — social, educational, mental health, for some even nutrition — is really an important price. It’s as an important price to me as a business closing and jobs being lost,” he said. “I think we are at a place now where we ought to do full reopening.”

Shutting schools down in the spring was necessary “when we thought we had an epidemic that was behaving like flu,” he said.

Douglas said an imperfect but growing database shows younger children don’t become infected or seriously ill from COVID-19 often. When they do become infected, “they don’t transmit very often,” he said.

That becomes less true the older a person gets, Douglas said. An 18-year-old football player would be more likely to contract and spread COVID-19 than a child younger than age 10.

Douglas strongly urged encouraging face coverings as much as possible in schools, “down to kindergarten” but especially among older students.

He also noted data trends at the time showed a slight uptick in Douglas County’s case rate, although Douglas County had significantly fewer cases, hospitalizations and deaths than Adams and Arapahoe counties, the other counties served by Tri-County Health.

“The rate of increase is going faster right now in Douglas County than it is in the other two counties,” he said. “That could very easily be mostly testing. I don’t want to say the sky is falling. I do, however, want to point out that we’ve got to be attentive to these kinds of numbers.”

As of July 17, Douglas County was showing more than a 102% increase in average daily cases over the past two weeks, a stark contrast from Adams’ 24.7% increase and Arapahoe’s 72.3% increase. All three counties’ rates fell drastically by July 20, with Douglas County sitting at 67.5%.

There were 54 deaths in Douglas County, 186 hospitalizations to date and 1,452 cases to date as of July 20.

‘Pioneers’ return to school

Some Douglas County students are already back in school.

Alternative school Daniel C. Oakes High School in Castle Rock resumed classes in-person July 8, becoming the “pioneers” of resuming school during COVID-19, as school board President Ray put it.

D.C. Oakes Principal Derek Fleshman told board directors most students are complying with a mask requirement and grateful to be back on campus. That wasn’t the case for all staff, he said.

“When you get into the staff conversation, I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but you are arguing different things and I think if we didn’t mention that we would be naive to what is happening in the world around us,” he said. “We are working through and trying to navigate those situations.”

The school opened by suggesting masks but later changed policy to require face coverings inside the building. Fleshman said this was to avoid confusion. The principal had not encountered any students refusing to wear a mask in the first few days of school, he said.

Tucker said staff are required to wear face coverings in district buildings, but he does not want masks to be a punitive issue. He is asking principals to individually sit down with staff who refuse to wear masks and work with human resources if needed, he said.

Certain employees, like those with medical conditions making masks intolerable, may not need to wear a mask, he said.

D.C. Oakes teacher LeeAnne Ladd told board directors she was nervous to return to school but was proud of students.

“The level of respect that they show the seriousness of this moment in our lives is pretty amazing,” she said.

Ladd urged directors to require masks in school buildings.

“That makes me feel quite a lot safer,” she said. “I think everyone in the building should have a mask on.”

D.C. Oakes has more than 120 students enrolled this quarter. Five requested to attend online, Fleshman said. The school opened with 50% of students attending in the morning and 50% in the afternoon.

The school’s size and structure make for different circumstances than what traditional schools will face, Fleshman said. Still, there are challenges for his building.

“We are small, but we also have classrooms that cannot have more than four students with the social distancing standards that are currently in place,” he said.

Fleshman said challenges aside, he believes parents and students want children back in school and that the hours spent planning to reopen were worth the time. He urged other principals to answer as many community questions as possible before reopening.

“I think we need to be very strategic with how we roll this out. My best advice would be to caution them with being slow,” Fleshman said. “Because it is such a politically charged time.”

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