Students wearing facemasks sit socailly distanced in a classroom at East Village Community Elementary School, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo by Jeremy Chavez/Cherry Creek Schools

AURORA | Dozens of parents and teachers lobbied Monday night for Cherry Creek to continue a remote learning option for K-5 students, created as a stopgap project for the pandemic.

The appeal came at a lengthy school board meeting that was abruptly turned remote due to a perceived bomb threat. The board’s February meeting was originally scheduled to take place Monday evening at West Middle School, but on Monday afternoon the district announced it would be broadcast over Zoom instead because of a threat made to the district by an individual with a documented criminal history.

Only one discussion item was on the agenda, a report about strategic planning that was not time-sensitive. The board unanimously voted to remove the discussion from the agenda so it could be held at a later meeting.

The meeting was largely taken up by public comment. More than 60 people signed up to speak, the majority of whom were there to ask the district to reconsider its decision to end its K-5 online learning program at the end of this school year.

Pre-pandemic the district had Cherry Creek Elevation, an online learning program for students in sixth to 12th grade. The district created a similar option beginning in the 2020-2021 school year for K-5 students as an alternative for families that did not want to do hybrid learning.

The program was connected to the students’ brick and mortar school but fully online, and families had to commit for the entire school year. The program continued in the 2021-2022 school year. Unlike Elevate, however, the primary-school program was always intended to be a temporary option during the pandemic.This spring, families were notified that it would not be continuing into the fall.

Several dozen parents and teachers, along with several students, voiced disappointment with that decision on Monday evening. Speaking through Zoom, many said that the online program was beneficial to them in ways that would outlast the pandemic and should become permanent.

Sarah Hoskinson is the parent of a boy with ADHD and sensory processing disorder, and said that the online program has allowed him to grow academically in ways he couldn’t in a traditional classroom.

“The K-5 program has changed the way our child views school. It has made a huge positive impact on his education,” she said.

Several parents and teachers acknowledged that the online program had some growing pains during the last school year, but has evolved into something valuable.

“Last year it started as a covid response program, but this year it has turned into a completely new entity all on its own,” teacher Nicole Kerr, who teaches music in the online program, said.

She believed that the decision to close it was made prematurely and didn’t take into account feedback from the community, something several other speakers said as well.

“I understand that online learning is not best for everyone, but it is what’s best for the families and students who have chosen it,” she said.

A coalition of parents and teachers has banded together to form ‘Save Our Schools Cherry Creek Online,’ a grassroots effort to try to encourage the district to continue the online K-5 option.

One of those parents, William O’Connor, told the Sentinel that families were abruptly notified on Jan. 14 that the program would be closing after this semester and that attempts to reach out to the district have so far not been fruitful.

“Some parents have contacted the district and have pretty much been told ‘thank you for your interest, the program and school are closing,’” he said.

O’Connor’s fourth grade daughter has been in the online school for both years and “has grown in confidence and her academic abilities thanks to cherry creek online,” he said. The family would like to stay in Cherry Creek, but he said they would potentially consider online programs outside the district if it goes through with its intention to shutter the K-5 option. 

The Douglas County School District has a K-12 online schooling program predating the pandemic. Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools have all expanded their online high school programs to include more grades, but none appear to be making the changes permanent, according to information on their websites.

The district initially received a one-year waver from the Colorado Department of Education to create the K-5 program at the beginning of the pandemic and received a one-year extension, which expires at the end of this school year. Currently, 359 K-5 students are enrolled, district spokesperson Abbe Smith told the Sentinel.

“However, based on current enrollment and future projections, the program would be too small to sustain in the future,” Smith said in an email. “It is an incredibly expensive program that takes away from brick and mortar neighborhood schools.”

During opening remarks, board members discussed the bomb threat and thanked the district’s IT and security team for their quick work

The threat did not reference a specific district issue or policy, and is currently under investigation by the Greenwood Village Police Department.

“If you don’t like something that the board is doing, please contact the board of education,” board president Kelly Bates said. “But please do not stoop to threatening board members, superintendents, staff or our students’ safety.”

Whether real or fake, this kind of threat “erodes our social and communal trust,” board member Angela Garland said.

Superintendent Chris Smith said he was “disturbed and saddened” that the district was not able to meet in person, and said that Cherry Creek fully intends to hold its March board meeting in person as usual.

“It is imperative that we take these situations very seriously,” he said. “As always, it will be our goal to be in person next month. I hope we can do that.”

The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 7 at Sky Vista Middle School.