Kelsey Rauh, front, and Isaac Okoye helped collect uniforms from spring sports athletes on May 13, 2020, at Cherokee Trail High School. The entire spring prep sports season was lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)
Seniors pass by nearly 100 teachers and administrators, May 15, 2020, in the parking lot of Rangeview High School, during the socially-distanced Senior Gauntlet. Traditionally with this rite of passage, seniors would pass through a tunnel of the teachers through the halls of the high school. This year that wasn’t possible, so they improvised. (Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

Rangeview High School was closed Friday, but cars clogged the byways near the central Aurora institution for a new take on an old ritual.

In a typical May, members of the graduating class explode through the school to the cheers and jeers of their classmates and teachers. It’s a tradition known as The Gauntlet, and it’s a key piece of a senior’s graduation from Rangeview.

Not this year.

In a world where COVID-19 has changed just about everything, and Rangeview remained shuttered, the celebration became a procession of cars through the school parking lot. Masked teachers stood at least six feet apart to offer brief words of congratulations – and advice – as the students and their families slowly circled into the parking lot, then out of the school community.

Katelynn Starkey pokes her head out of the sunroof of her friend Sidney Duncan’s car, May 15, 2020, during Rangeview High School’s socially-distanced Senior Gauntlet. (Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

“It’s sad,” said Aliya Jones, a sophomore who watched the procession. “This is so weird.”

The event also offered a snapshot of the challenges facing the public school system as this school year ends and an uncertain future looms over students, families and teachers: How will school communities gather in classrooms — let alone in hallways — when public health authorities expect a second wave of the novel coronavirus in the fall?

The details, school officials say, are staggering.

Still, regional superintendents, public health authorities, school finance experts, teachers and students, optimistically told the Sentinel area schools are expected to open the doors in August despite nearly impossible constraints.

How many students and how often they go to school, and even how they get there, is a far-less rosy scenario.

Classes could be part virtual, part physical, but with real grading. Students could be screened before entering a school and turned away if they are exhibiting virus symptoms. Desks will likely be spaced six feet apart, helping limit viral spread but also the number of students allowed inside a school at one time. Buses will be near empty, but at a new capacity.

Rangeview 9th grade English teacher Sara Myers waves to a car full of graduating seniors, May 15, 2020, at Rangeview High School. Traditionally with this rite of passage, seniors would pass through a tunnel of the teachers through the halls of the high school. This year that wasn’t possible, so they improvised. (Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

And all of this as school funding budgets are expected to lose millions – if not billions – as a result of the brewing economic calamity.

“The details of this are mind-boggling, really,” Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Scott Siegfried said. “We are being asked to do something that has never been contemplated.”

A hallway at Aurora Central High School long before the pandemic. (File Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

The “second wave” 

Schools are crowded places.

Usually, it’s not uncommon to have about 30 children in a classroom, plus one or more teachers and staff members. Aurora high schools can corral more than 4,000 people on a campus, including staff. During passing periods, hallways become choked with students.

The population density posed an obvious problem when the novel coronavirus began to spread quickly through the metro area in March.

Although researchers believe children are at lower risk of getting sick if they contract the new coronavirus, students in packed schools could start outbreaks. An asymptomatic student can carry the bug to one another and ultimately out of the school to a family member or teacher who is at a high risk. Plus, many students and teachers are immuno-compromised or have otherwise required strict isolation during the pandemic to stay safe.

In March, health officials determined that closing altogether was the best way to prevent classrooms from becoming hotspots, or the source of many outside of schools.

In doing so, school administrators bought time for stay-at-home orders and social distancing to “flatten the curve” of new COVID-19 cases.

Colorado health officials say data shows the state has indeed dramatically slowed the spread of the coronavirus, and that closing schools may have been a big part of that. The school year ended for most Aurora students the week of May 18.

Now, public health authorities and school administrators have begun a Herculean task of preparing for the tough reality come the 2020-2021 school year, which begins in August.

The fear is, if students return to schools, so will COVID-19 spikes.

What school looks like will be tied to the fate of the pandemic and success of social distancing, said Dr. John Douglas, executive director of the Tri-County Health Department.

As the Aurora region’s public health authority, Douglas estimated the pandemic would smooth out to some degree during the summer before a “second wave” arrived in the fall. Then, the virus will be aided by falling temperatures and “social distancing fatigue.” The pandemic will be further complicated by the arrival of typical flus such as influenza, he said.

In other words, there’s little indication the pandemic is over or will be over in the fall. As of May 18, confirmed COVID-19 cases continued to add up in the Aurora region.

Barring a vaccine – which Douglas and every public official in Aurora are eagerly awaiting – schooling next year will become equal parts learning and viral spread prevention. Physically and economically, that’s the best everyone can hope for, officials say.

School officials are sticking with public health guidance, and that flow of information begins at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This month, the Associated Press acquired a CDC planning document laying out the necessity of tracking the virus’ spread in schools, creating social-distance-friendly spaces, relentlessly disinfecting all surfaces and more – without laying out how schools would do so.

Artist rendering of what a classroom could look like following the CDC recommended social distancing guidelines. ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT SAUSAMAN/Sentinel Colorado

“Space seating/desks to at least six feet apart,” the document advises. “Create social distance between children on school buses where possible.”

Aurora-area school districts haven’t released public plans, leaving teachers and families to wonder what next year will bring.

“We don’t know what it is going to look like,” Dawn Mills, a special education teacher at Rangeview said last week. “I’m kind of trying to finish the year. If we have to continue online, we continue online.”

Students board the bus at sunrise on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 near Orchard and Parker Roads. Cherry Creek schools officials say distancing and other protocols present several logistical problems for schools. File photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel

“It’s very much on the table”

A raven squawked at Siegfried, superintendent of the 55,000-student Cherry Creek school system, as he considered during a virtual interview from his backyard how to reopen schools.

Siegfried described how the typical day of a Cherokee Trail High School might look nothing like years past. But he cautioned the future is still up in the air and will be subject to the public health guidance at a given moment.

Siegfried said a student might don a mask in the morning and join a line of other students waiting outside for entry into the school. They would stand more than six feet apart.

At the top of the line, the student would present a school ID to a dean wearing personal protective equipment.

In this scenario, the dean might wave a temperature wand to check if the student has a fever. That’s a common COVID-19 symptom, but one likely not present in every positive case, Siegfried said. The district is also trying to facilitate viral testing of students and staff, but officials aren’t sure how that would work. Swabbing people entering the building has already been ruled out.

If the student fails a screening of some kind, they might be sent home from there and have to work on a computer instead of in a classroom. If the student needs a ride home, staff might handle them with personal protective equipment and separate them from other students until a parent or guardian arrives, taking care not to identify that the student might have COVID-19.

Once inside, the student could travel a defined route to a classroom and avoid touching things.

Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

At this point, all interactions with staff and students would become dictated by the golden rule of social distancing. Siegfried is accounting for about six and a half feet of air necessary between each person in the school, creating a 44 square-foot buffer around each person.

He hopes to get about 15 people in a classroom that this year hosted about twice that number. That target rules out classrooms below 660 square feet. To make space, Siegfried said classroom furniture might be loaded into trailers and stored outside of the school. The district might also rent big “wedding tents” to use as cafeterias or classrooms. How that would work during Colorado’s sometimes cruel winters is unclear.

But the biggest measure would be limiting the number of students and staff. Schools might be separated into “A” and “B” groups.

One group would use the classroom one day while the other would learn from home and then switch places. The plan gets a thumbs up from health officials because it makes it easier to track and control COVID-19 cases when they start to re-occur. Half of the students never encounter the other half, under such a plan.

In the scenario, Cherokee Trail hallways would be spacious. Cafeterias and gyms could be closed. Some urinals could be marked off in the boys’ bathrooms to ensure spacing. Siegfried said that in some cases, bathrooms could be one-person at a time, simply because of space constraints.

And through it all, the student would wear a mask for much of the school day, which could be dramatically shortened, and then go home.

After school, staff would fully disinfect the school with an atomizer spraying disinfectant. Perhaps the next day, or later that week, the other crop of students would arrive for their in-person learning.

Tyler Zappia, a math teacher at Overland High School, collects books from students May 11, 2020, at Overland during Senior Checkout, where students return school supplies and pick-up their cap and gown and rewards. (Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

To complicate things further, schools might have to close on the advice of public health officials. If a school becomes host to an outbreak, classrooms would have to become all-computer-based again and reopen when the situation became safer.

The proportion of students learning in-person and at home might also float based on public health advice.

It’s a complicated and uncertain future. But the elements of Siegfried’s scenario aren’t unique to Cherokee Trail, nor any school in the Cherry Creek School District.

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn offered fewer details about district plans for next year. But he acknowledged the fundamental problem the pandemic poses.

“The math only works a couple of ways,” Munn said of the social distancing constraints. “You either need fewer people or more square footage.”

Both of those options add up to one thing: more money. It’s a math problem that will only get worse as state officials determine how much public schools will have to deduct from their already ailing annual budgets.

Munn said APS is working with the City of Aurora and religious groups to acquire more space for students to learn or stay when they aren’t in school.

Senior students wait for class to begin with plastic boards placed on their desks at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, May 20, 2020. South Korean students began returning to schools Wednesday as their country prepares for a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Kim Jun-beom/Yonhap via AP)

District officials set up emergency planning committees and will be producing a strategy document soon. In the meantime, Munn said he’s listening to community opinions and establishing how every student and family will receive the essential functions a school usually performs, even if they are learning remotely.

As challenging as public education will become for every school in the state, districts like APS, brimming with poor and immigrant students, have to find ways to help thousands of families already facing dire problems. For many of these families, at-home learning isn’t an inconvenience, it’s an impossibility.

Munn cautioned that, “We are not trying to get back to normal,” he said of what district officials are hoping the next school year will look like. “That ship has sailed.”

He also said the district might consider allowing worried parents to keep their children home.

“I expect there will be some families who won’t be comfortable coming back into a physical space for some period of time,” Munn said.

Like Cherry Creek leaders, Munn is regularly talking with Douglas and Tri-County Health officials. Along with Siegfried, he said the public health outlook in August will be the real shot-caller.

With the basics established sometime this summer, specific challenges will plague planners in APS and Cherry Creek.

On the first day of school, how will teachers comfort crying kindergartners? In Cherry Creek schools, 23,000 students are bused to school. But with social distancing, how will more than a few students ride the bus? For special needs students requiring occupational therapy at school, how will staff clean breathing tubes or acquire clear masks for deaf students to read lips? What about immune-compromised students or elderly staff? How would students be penalized for not social distancing?

And how will staff disinfect everything a student touches?

“We probably need a couple million containers of Lysol wipes,” Siegfried said.

Testing would also have to be a crucial part of the plan. The information would lay the groundwork for the school operations and have to be up-to-date.

This week, Siegfried said he’s not sure how that would take place.The school doesn’t have the capacity to potentially test tens of thousands of students and staff every day.

Douglas, the public health official, said testing to monitor the transmission rate at schools will be key. He’s banking on innovations in testing – and more test kits.

“I think it’s very much on the table,” Douglas said of testing students.

Overland Principal Aleshia Armour hands out Class of 2020 signs to seniors on May 11, 2020, at Overland during Senior Checkout, where students return school supplies and pick-up their cap and gown and rewards. (Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado)

“They need movement”

Planners are considering the gymnastics involved in opening schools because officials say schools have to open – at least, to some degree.

That’s because of a growing consensus that the months-long experiment in remote learning quickly exposed cracks in the plan.

Area education officials and teachers agree that the computer-based work was necessary and even adequate to keep kids learning this year as the pandemic unexpectedly ravaged the region. District staff developed the plans in a matter of days and handed out tens of thousands of computers for free to families. That’s only part of the problem for thousands of families who don’t have access to Wi-Fi from home, and can’t participate in online learning, because they simply can’t make it work on their phones or computers.

Educators agree that remote learning is no substitute for the tangible, human interaction in classrooms. Social interaction is key for emotional and behavioral development essential to life outside of the classroom, too. Proactive teachers and staff help students keep mental health crises at bay.

“They need movement,” Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said of students. “They need other brain development activities. They need fine motor activities… and learning from their peers.”

Plus, Siegfried and Douglas said school systems have an obligation to reopen for economic recovery, too.

Working parents will need to get out of the house and get to work as the local economy reopens. That’s nearly impossible if remote learning becomes the norm and a parent has to leave children at home. That poses yet another challenge to family’s livelihoods already decimated by the pandemic.

Then, there are the academics.

Rangeview math teacher Michelle Totsman said it’s been harder to keep her students engaged on a daily basis. She said they started off strong but began “trickling away” as the year went on.

Conventional grading has essentially been done away with during remote learning to accommodate families during the turmoil of the pandemic and because of barriers inherent in the teaching model.

Wrench said some 55,000 students still don’t have access to a device that can use Wi-Fi in their homes. She’s hearing stories of families parking in school lots for hours to access the internet.

If schools remain shuttered next year, and every single student doesn’t have a stable work environment, a computer and Wi-Fi, they’ll be graded for missed or incomplete work because of circumstances essentially outside of their control.

Academic records could be permanently affected, hurting students’ graduation, college and work prospects.

Grandview boys lacrosse coach Scott Hussey, right, talks with one of his players after collecting his uniform on May 13, 2020, at Grandview High School. The spring prep sports season, including lacrosse, was wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

Sporting chances

A football practice with no footballs or hitting.

Wrestling with no contact and tennis played against walls.

Cross country races with six feet in between runners.

Academics aren’t the only steep mountain school districts are trying to climb as they figure out what public education might look like in the pandemic. Siegfried and other educators quickly stipulate that, for many, athletics, choir, art and other “extras” aren’t just a big reason students stay in school, it’s the only reason. What happens if those activities are gone or diminished? School officials may find out.

All these and many more things would strikingly change the look of high school sports — at least initially — if they are to return in the fall according to newly-released recommendations from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The Sentinel has explored the myriad challenges to education alone, but athletics has its own challenging labyrinth to navigate a safe path in response to something that ended the 2019-20 winter prep season prematurely and wiped out the entire spring season.

The NFHS — whose mandates are followed by Colorado and most other state high school governing bodies around the country — gathered its 15-member Sports Medicine Advisory Committee of medical doctors, certified trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives to help create a direction in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a large document sent out to its membership, the NFHS recommended a “staged” approach to opening high school athletics and activities — with states to coordinate with their various state and local health departments for exact dates — and the first phase is a doozy.

Cherokee Trail’s Abel Ambriz lifts Grandview’s Grady Colgan on his feet during the second period of the 152-pound match in the Centennial League wrestling dual between the Cougars and Wolves on Jan. 11, 2018, at Grandview High School. Contact sports like these are almost certainly off the table in trying to determine which athletics will mesh with distancing guidelines this fall. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

On top of frequent and thorough cleaning of high-traffic surfaces, athletes and coaches would be screened prior to workouts for signs of COVID-19, groups limited to 10 or fewer with six-foot social distancing observed at all times. No shared balls, equipment or water bottles, no use of locker rooms and wearing face coverings in less-strenuous sports are part of the initial scenario.

“Talking with ADs, I think everything is on the table as far as what this will look like,” Cherry Creek Schools Athletic Director Larry Bull told the Sentinel. “Pick whatever number you want, but there are at least 100 balls up in the air. Eligibility, school, transportation, officials. It’s a very complex conversation with a lot of unknowns.

“The thing we need to be realistic about is that I love sports — and I don’t want to say sports are secondary — but schools need to figure out how we are going to get kids educated, first.”

Phase 2 in NFHS’ plan is when things would begin to get closer to usual, with up to 50 participants allowed in one place for outdoor workouts and competition allowed for sports the organization has classified as “lower risk” — a list including golf and non-contact individual events. Future phases would include competition for moderate risk, seemingly the largest classification of sports, with higher risk (football, wrestling, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer, dance) coming last.

Colorado schools should get a clearer picture come June 1, with the arrival of the decisions and recommendations to come from the Colorado High School Activities Association’s self-dubbed “Resocialization to Activities” Task Force, which Commissioner Rhonda Blanford-Green announced in a letter to its member schools May 15.

“We anticipate that there will be challenges and difficult decisions in our future that will require collaborative leadership as we work to return to the classroom and interscholastic activities,” Blanford-Green’s letter read.

“Even in our world of unknowns, what we do know, is that the social, financial and operational effects of this global pandemic will temporarily alter how we conduct business,” she added. “There isn’t a prescribed script. If positively embraced, the opportunities to think outside the box and emerge as better servant-leaders are endless.”

CHSAA has allowed Colorado’s individual school districts to dictate their own timelines in terms of athletics in between seasons and Bull said Cherry Creek Schools will keep district facilities closed until June 30, roughly the same date that AD Casey Powell and Aurora Public Schools has set.

The Grandview girls soccer team celebrates with its crowd after the Wolves’ win in the Class 5A girls state soccer championship game on May 25, 2016. What was once a common scene for school athletics is now an impossibility for schools and athletics organizers. (File Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

Powell is currently part of a team exploring how sports can return safely and can see a path to play in some form should the pandemic not flare further.

In the immediate future, it would mean staggered practice times, social distancing and consistent application of both for indoor and outdoor sports in the district.

“I’m holding out optimism that we will,” Powell said of the prospect of sports returning in the fall. “I really hope that we can, but we’re going to have to have a pretty stark turnaround in the way things are going right now.”

Powell’s primary feeling is that athletic contests — at least at first — will be held without spectators at fields or in stadiums, a model that the professional sports that have returned have adopted.

Contests would be streamed online with greater frequency and accessibility, which Powell is ready to accomplish as he has pushed the district forward in terms of technology since he took over the job. APS high school gymnasiums and APS Stadium at Hinkley High School already have mounted cameras to stream games remotely, as do facilities in Cherry Creek Schools.

Careful consideration will be taken with each and every step of potentially bringing sports back, though everybody knows that things can change and have changed on a daily basis for the past two months.

“Everybody wants sports back, so if there was a magic wand that could make all of this happen safely, we would find a way to find that magic wand and get it done,” Bull said. “Everybody wants sports. We have a group that is going to make the best decisions with safety in mind to get them back.”

Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Grim financial picture

When schools reopen to some degree next year, they’ll have to grow their operations with shrinking budgets.

That’s because the pandemic also created a budget crisis that will limit schools’ ability to pay for all of these required measures.

From the free lunch programs instituted during the pandemic, to the free laptops loaned to families and the oceans of disinfectant, everything comes with a price tag to school districts and taxpayers, Wrench said. Next year, buses may have to make triple — or even quadruple — the usual routes to get kids to school, she said. There could be the added costs of the wedding tents or rented spaces to make new student spaces.

“Schools need money to do those,” Wrench said. “Those plans don’t implement themselves.”

Educators are quick to note that the state’s K-12 school system is already underfunded in part because of budget-balancing measures imposed after the Great Recession.

Now, the pandemic and economic collapse is now jeopardizing state education dollars flowing from the state Legislature. That’s the largest source of revenue for both Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District.

This year, APS budgeted for about $285 million from state contributions, which rely heavily on anticipated sales taxes and other taxes that the pandemic quickly reduced. The Cherry Creek general fund expected to pull in more than $340 million from state government — more than half its total revenue for this year.

It’s likely these and other districts will have that piece of their budget reduced in the coming years. The state now faces a $3 billion budget shortfall.

Education and health care are expected to take deep cuts before the session is over.

There is some hope federal funding might pad education and other spending areas from big cuts. This week, Gov. Jared Polis has prioritized $500 million of those funds for public education.

Educators lauded the dollars, but the reality is still grim.

Members of the state’s Joint Budget Committee, which has been meeting during a temporary recess due to the virus, are charged with recommending tough budget cuts to their peers when they return on May 26. Members of the JBC have said they will try to protect education from major cuts, but educators and policy experts aren’t optimistic.

Tracie Rainey, Executive Director of the Colorado School Finance Project, said last week districts should prepare for a 15% cut in their state revenue unless the state legislature raises taxes in November. Rainey and other education boosters, including the statewide teacher’s union, are backing a progressive tax plan that would raise income taxes on earners above $250,000. Voters might consider the initiative on their November ballots.

“Without having that additional revenue, I don’t see how they can keep it away from K-12, even if they would like to,” she said of the JBC’s budget cuts.

School funding was a lot to stomach even before the pandemic. But Senate Education Committee Chair Nancy Todd remains hopeful.

Todd said education programs likely will see less money from the state, but she said school districts are adept at spending money creatively and will continue to do so. She said they’ll have to.   

Superintendents Siegfried and Munn don’t share Todd’s optimism.

Munn said he expects budget impacts for at least three years, although he thinks APS is in a good position to weather the storm thanks to a recent property tax increase and a strong cash reserve.

Siegfried is more worried.

“This will be more depression-level cuts than recession-level cuts,” he said of the state legislature.

He’s expecting from $30 million to $60 million less in Cherry Creek coffers next year.

That could mean big staff layoffs of staff in Cherry Creek’s future at a crucial time for running school operations. The district might consider a local property tax raise to prevent that.

For Siegfried, the budget cuts and public health challenge could have a generational impact on the education system and the economy. He’s worried students with disabilities and those living in poverty could fall behind and become less prepared for working and living in a 21st century economy.

“This could take us decades to build out of, intellectually and economically,” he said.

If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it’s that many Aurora seniors successfully graduated from high school this year while the pandemic upended their lives.

“Before COVID, my senior year was going amazingly,” Meron Siyoum said May 15 at Rangeview’s drive-through graduation parade. She’s the 2020 class president.

Siyoum spoke of a year “stripped away” from students: schools closed at the beginning of spring, ending sports seasons. Prom was canceled. It’s unclear if Rangeview and other schools will have a graduation ceremony this summer – one more challenge for school planners and public health officials.

But Siyoum said her classmates pushed through and kept their eyes on the prize.

Now, she’s off to Colorado State University in Fort Collins. At least, virtually.

And the pandemic has given her a passion.

Siyoum said she and her classmates watched governments fail to prevent a mass pandemic and the chaos that followed. She wants to get involved.

“We weren’t prepared for this,” Siyoum said.

— Sentinel reporters Kara Mason and Courtney Oakes contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to reflect that Cherry Creek officials are aiming to facilitate viral testing of students and staff, but it’s not clear how that would take place. Officials already ruled out deans or school staff administering viral swabs to people entering schools.