APS chief Rico Munn in quarantine, district navigating COVID-19 spike and push for in-person classes

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AURORA | The increase in COVID-19 cases in Arapahoe and Adams county was felt at the Aurora Public Schools board of education meeting Tuesday night, as Superintendent Rico Munn joined the meeting remotely because he is currently in quarantine after being in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The rise in cases has been a challenge for the district, which on Monday pushed back high school students’ return to in-person school until at least Nov. 16. A decision as to whether kindergarten through middle school students will need to return to online learning will be made by Oct. 22.

The change was made after the district’s internal COVID-19 safety matrix dipped below the recommended level for in-person schooling. In response to a question from a board member, Munn said he believes the nature of the matrix has been misunderstood by the public.

“It’s a policy document, it’s not a health document,” he said.

If the district has the right mitigation measures in place, Munn said he believes students are better off in school rather than at home.

“The question is, will the county’s health levels and issues overwhelm our ability to run our system?” he said.

Munn said he has been in conversation with the Tri-County Health Department about the rise in cases. The department hopes that new mitigation measures put in place will help stabilize cases, but it will take at least one or two more days to see if they are making an impact, he said.

After Munn’s update, the district’s Promise 54 working group presented to the board for the second time on their work into how to improve the retention of educators of color in the district. At the previous meeting, the group presented the findings of a survey of district employees, which found that staffers of color felt less supported and less able to bring their “whole selves” to work.

At Tuesday’s meeting the working group shared a list of potential strategies the district can put in place to support employees of color. These include implementing districtwide culturally responsive training, creating affinity groups for employees of different backgrounds, creating a mentoring program for staffers of color and implementing culturally competent hiring practices. 

“All of these things trickle to focusing on improved student outcomes, because ultimately that’s why we’re here,” said working group member Biaze Houston.

The district’s math and reading assessment program, i-Ready, is giving the district a positive signal about student’s performance during the pandemic. The program is an online assessment in math and English that students take three times a year. Assessment director Mya Martin-Glenn said that at the beginning of this school year, there was a 7% increase in the number of students who tested at grade level in English and a 4% increase in math.

The improvements were highest among the younger grades, which Martin-Glenn said the vendor that processes the test said has been consistent nationwide. It’s possible that may be driven by more parent involvement, she said.

“When students test at home parents are very helpful proctors, perhaps a little too helpful sometimes,” she said.

However, the district does not think there is widespread parental involvement, and this is a good sign regarding how students are doing during online learning.

In open dialogue at the end of the meeting, director Kevin Cox shared that while the board has been busy dealing with COVID response, it has to prepare for the next school year as well.

Board president Kyla Armstrong-Romero agreed, and said that due to the nature of the pandemic the board has had to take things one day at a time. She shared that she has been experiencing some COVID-19 symptoms and is worried about what that will mean for her newborn babies if she tests positive.

It’s important for the board to be thoughtful in its decision making and to lead by example, she said.

 “It’s scary times and we’re responsible for making some really tough decisions,” she said.

Munn said that he’s been in discussions with district leadership about what the future could look like, and said that soon the district should begin to have community discussions about its priorities for the future. 

“As we try to serve a community and a district that’s been traumatized in a number of ways…it seems to me in that space one of my highest responsibilities is to plan,” Munn said.

The next board meeting will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 10.