Donning masks, students and teachers gather on the basketball court of Sunrise Elementary School, Aug. 17, 2020, on the first day of school.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Rangeview High School teacher Amanda Brecht was drawn to teaching math because she’s passionate about problem-solving, which she believes is “a way of thinking that we need to be pushing forward as much as we can.”

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have proven her right, as educators confront the many-headed hydra of a problem that is figuring out how to provide safe, high-quality public education during the biggest public health crisis in a century.

What the best solution is, or whether there even is one, still remains to be seen. 

Aurora’s two school districts took different routes. In July, the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education voted for school to be online-only through at least the first quarter. In early August, the Cherry Creek School District broke with the majority of metro Denver districts and decided to start the semester in person, with elementary school students going to school five days a week and middle and high schoolers two days a week.

As part of APS, Brecht is now teaching online. It’s created a new dynamic in the classroom, as her students watch her adjust to the format in real time and collaborate with her on how best to do things.

“We’re all problem solving right now, including me,” she said.

Fifth graders and their parents arrive for the first day of school, Aug. 17, 2020, at Sunrise Elementary School.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The spring semester was a scramble to transition to online learning with almost no advance notice, and school districts raced to equip students and teachers as best they could with limited resources. Across the country students took part in a vast, unplanned experiment, with some faring better than others. A lack of internet access at home, no home computer or not enough devices to go around for each kid, and parents that had to work during the day or didn’t have the English fluency or technology skills to help navigate online learning were hurdles that impeded many students’ ability to learn well during that time.

Once the transition was more or less complete, discussion shifted to what school would look like in the fall. Despite the initial collective reluctance in the first days of lockdown to acknowledge that the pandemic would go on that long, it quickly became clear that schools needed to start working on plans right away if they wanted to make the next semester run more smoothly.

Many ideas were floated in the spring; some never materialized. APS was in talks with the city of Aurora and local religious groups to acquire space for students to learn or stay when they aren’t in school, which there hasn’t been any more development on, district spokesperson Corey Christiansen said.

Cherry Creek Schools officials discussed renting large tents to use as cafeterias or classrooms to increase space, but never ended up purchasing any.

The fluctuating infection rate and testing availability — and difficulty of predicting whether cases would be higher or lower in the fall — made preparing for the school year a challenge. Ultimately, each district came to a different conclusion about what would be best.

Cherry Creek schools created a scorecard of COVID-19 data that will provide the basis for his reopening or closure decisions. Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Scott Siegfried said the decision-making process gained approval from Dr. John Douglas, Tri-County Health’s executive director. 

The scorecard is composed of four key metrics for Arapahoe County:  daily new cases, the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations, the 14-day incidence rate and the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests.

The district has essentially defined good, medium and poor categories in these four metrics. A good metric earns two points, a medium earns one point and a poor metric earns zero points. The district scored a good incidence rate, for example, as below 50, while a poor rate is more than 100 and a medium rate is between the two. 

If the scorecard drops below 4 points for a sustained time period, families can expect their student to land back at home between one and two weeks. 

A small handful of APS students are still receiving in-person instruction in small groups, mainly students with disabilities and those who have recently arrived in the U.S. The rest of the district’s 40,000-plus students are strictly online.

This fall, an average grade school student in the district will start the day by logging into Google Meet and Google Classroom at 8:30 a.m., where they’ll have live instruction with their teacher and the rest of their class. Instead of raising their hand, they might use the chat box to submit questions. During the middle of the day they’ll log off for a 50-minute lunch and recess break before returning to class until 3 p.m. Specialist teachers will log on during the day to deliver lessons in art, music and P.E.

After the school day is officially over, they might linger online to talk to their friends. Then, they’ll log off to work on their homework.

The district’s remote-learning setup is as good as it can be, Superintendent Rico Munn told the Sentinel.

“Remote learning is not the optimal place to be in, we know that that will exacerbate existing inequities, but we’re confident that we have a strong platform,” he said.

But ultimately, “we have to figure out a way to get back to in-person learning as soon as we can,” he said.

Jori Botvinick, a second grade teacher at Sixth Avenue Elementary, said she’s been impressed by how quickly her students have adapted to online learning. She wasn’t sure initially what teaching a classroom of 19 young kids would be like, but so far the students have acted very mature and seem excited to be seeing their friends and having the opportunity to learn.

“They’re so resilient,” she said.

Grade school students in the Cherry Creek School District are having a very different day. 

Before leaving for school, students’ parents must check their child’s temperature and input information into a COVID-19 symptoms tracker app to ensure that they don’t go to school if they might be sick.

Before walking into school they will put on their mask, which they will wear for the entire day, except when eating lunch. They will go to their classroom, where classroom supplies are no longer shared, to reduce the spread of germs.

The student’s class, which has about 17-25 people, serves as their cohort, which they will stay with all day in order to limit how many students are in contact with each other. During lunch, each grade will eat and have recess separately.

On the bus, students will be grouped into cohorts with the youngest sitting in front and the oldest in the back. Students must keep their masks on, and the bus windows will be open to provide more ventilation.

The district gave families the option of doing online learning if they weren’t ready or able to send their kid back to school. Of the district’s 55,000 students, 10,800 are doing online learning this year, district spokesperson Abbe Smith told the Sentinel.

On Aug. 20, Gov. Jared Polis visited Village East Elementary School in Aurora along with CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried and a bevy of government officials. Donning one of the face masks that the state is distributing to every school in Colorado, he dutifully had his temperature checked before ducking into a second-grade classroom to greet students.

Polis was full of praise for the district’s decision to return to in-person learning. The mood of CCSD employees in attendance was upbeat as well, with multiple teachers and staff telling the Sentinel they believed the district had put together a safe plan.

Before entering Village East Community Elementary School, Gov. Jared Polis has his temperature checked by Chana Aminov, an RN at the elementary school, Aug. 20, 2020 visit to the school.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Diana Roybal, who oversees 15 elementary schools as one of the district’s executive directors of elementary education, said that the district had planned for the fact that a lot of students would probably show up without masks, and had stationed staff members throughout schools with extras.

So far that week, none of the kids in any of the schools had showed up without a mask, she said — hopefully a sign that everyone is taking the new safety protocols seriously.

However, not everyone is reassured.

Angela Olthoff, a former teacher and the parent of a third grader in Cherry Creek who is returning to school in person, said that she was excited for students to go back to class but “once I started hearing more of the teachers concerns I was like OK, red flag.”

She said teachers have expressed concerns about how stringent guidelines about social distancing and mask wearing will be enforced by the administration and how well young students will be able to follow the rules.

“I don’t know how feasible that’s going to be with the little kids,” Olthoff said.

Cherry Creek’s teachers union declined to comment for this article. APS’s teachers union did not respond to requests for comment.

How the semester will play out in each district is still full of uncertainty.

At Village East, Polis acknowledged that outbreaks at schools will be inevitable.

“I don’t want anybody to be surprised in our state when classes and schools do need to be shut down,” Polis said. “The key thing is to act early so it’s limited to a class or a school.”

As of August 25 one student and three teachers in the district have tested positive for COVID-19, and 22 people were quarantined as a result of being in close contact with them.

According to guidelines released by the state health department, schools should be closed for two weeks if there are five or more COVID-19 outbreaks in different cohorts within a two-week period, or if 5% of students and teachers contract COVID-19 within a two-week period. Outbreaks are defined as two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases within the same cohort.

At APS, whether or not the school will open back up for in-person learning remains to be seen. The first quarter runs through Oct. 8, so before then the board will have to come to a decision.

Brecht and Botvinick both said that the way their students have responded to the pandemic has made them hopeful.

“I think what’s really happening under the surface is they are developing grit,” Brecht said. “That ability to just keep pushing through, keep pushing on, and know we’re in this together, we’re going to be OK.”

— Grant Stringer contributed to this story

So many questions…

Information comes from APS spokesperson Corey Christiansen, CCSD spokesperson Abbe Smith and information from the districts’ websites.

Aurora Public Schools

How is APS handling special instruction like music, art, etc.?

 Schools have purchased materials for art classes and sent the materials home to students. Schools are also checking out musical instruments for band classes. Where necessary, music programs are focusing on teaching music appreciation and/or music theory classes which are more adaptable to a remote setting.

How is attendance being taken for remote learning?

The board of education approved temporary attendance procedures for online learning. Attendance will be based on student logging into online learning platforms, attendance or viewing of online meetings, completion of lessons/assignments, participation in Google Classroom activities, online assessments and direct communication with a teacher. Tardies are not being recorded.

What do students do for remote “recess”?

Students are encouraged to move throughout the day as part of regular “brain breaks” along with their physical education classes. Time devoted to lunch and recess is designed to give students a break from their computer screens. Participating in specific activities during these times is at the discretion of individual teachers.

How are students who don’t have a computer or reliable internet at home being helped?

APS has distributed more than 20,500 devices to students and is purchasing an additional 3,800 devices for the fall to distribute to any students who need them. For students and families who have sought internet assistance, APS has connected them with Comcast Internet Essentials, CenturyLink Lifeline or Verizon/T-mobile for internet access. For those who were not able to obtain internet access through these providers, the district supplied them with a hot spot.

Cherry Creek School District

How will parents be notified if their child’s class has to go remote?

They will be notified via a phone call and email. Over the summer, CCSD asked all of its families if they needed a computer through its online parent registration process. All families who indicated they needed a computer – whether they were enrolled in online or in-person – were able to pick up a computer at their child’s school.

What are the protocols for students going to the bathroom? 

Students must wear masks. Each bathroom has a sign with the capacity limit for the bathroom. If the bathroom is at capacity, students must wait outside standing on the socially distanced “x’s”.

Will there be fewer students in classrooms this year?

Yes. About 10,800 students enrolled in online school. Those students will not be in classrooms this year. Additionally, since middle and high school students are following a hybrid model, there will be half as many students going to school each day.

 What happens if a student can’t access the symptom tracker
one day?

The symptom tracker is part of overlapping strategies to ensure health and safety during in-person learning this year. There is no repercussion if a person cannot access the app on a given day. If any student or staff member feels sick, they should stay home that day.

How are people notified of COVID-19 cases?

With the free testing provided by COVIDCheck for district employees, the district is notified if a staff member tests positive, and gets in contact with that staff person and works with Tri-County Health Department to do contact tracing. If there is a confirmed case at a school, the district notifies all families at the school and send a separate letter to anyone who needs to quarantine due to close contact with the person who has COVID.

How are students grouped on the bus?

Elementary and middle school students will be cohorted with younger students in front and older students in the back. High school students will not be cohorted. All students must wear masks, bus drivers will have extra masks. Two students can sit in a seat.

Will the bus windows still be open for ventilation in the
winter months?

The district did not respond to a question about this.

Are certain structures off-limits at recess because of
safety concerns?

No. 

How will eating in the cafeteria work?

Students will stand in a distanced line to get their food. Kitchen workers will be cleaning and sanitizing tables frequently. Students need to wear their masks until they sit down. After students finish eating they must wash their hands.

Are classrooms being cleaned more frequently? 

Hard surfaces will be cleaned and disinfected throughout the day and in the evening. The district’s filters are being upgraded to a medical-grade filter that is twice as dense as the one that was previously used, and the HVAC system will be run longer to increase air circulation.

What happens if students or staff won’t wear a mask?

Students who deliberately don’t wear a mask will be reminded of the requirements, given an official warning and on the third instance be transferred to online school. On the third instance for staff, they will be placed on unpaid leave.

What happens if a student gets sick in the middle of the day? 

If a student develops a fever at school, they will be asked to be picked up by their parents.