APS restarts classes at school after months of on-line learning at home

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AURORA | For the first time since March, students in Aurora Public Schools went back to the classroom as the district transitions back to in-person learning after spending the first quarter of the school year online.

“It’s great to have more kids in our buildings,” Superintendent Rico Munn told the Sentinel.

Students in elementary and middle school returned Monday, while high school students will go back to class on Oct. 20. The district is using a hybrid model, with each student body split into two groups. Each group will attend school in person for a week at the time, while the other group goes to school online. Every student will go to school online on Fridays.

Only having half the student body on campus at a time allows the district to do more social distancing and will reduce traffic in and around schools, according to a message the district sent to families.

Students will be grouped into cohorts within schools. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the district will use CDPHE guidelines to determine whether only close contacts need to be quarantined or whether the entire cohort has to go into quarantine, Munn said.

Like the neighboring Cherry Creek School District, APS is using a decision matrix to determine whether it is safe to have school in person. Developed with the input of the Tri-County Health Department, the matrix uses nine public health indicators, including student case rate, percent of positive tests among staff and the 14-day incidence rate within APS boundaries.

The matrix will be updated every two weeks, but the district will be monitoring data every day, Munn said.

In an Oct. 6 meeting with the Aurora school board, Tri-County Health Department director Dr. John Douglas said that what he’s seen so far from schools that are in person makes him tentatively optimistic.

“One of the advantages of starting a little later than others is the guidance the state health department has issued about how to manage cases in schools has been evolving,” he said to the board.

COVID-19 cases have begun rising in the county again, with the county currently at a 7-day rolling average of 83.7 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to Tri-County.

However, Douglas told the board that he is more worried about community transmission affecting schools than the schools themselves being the locus of outbreaks.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora Education Association, said that it’s too soon to say how the return to in-person learning is going for teachers. 

“We certainly have teachers who feel that it’s not yet safe,” he said.

While the district has put a lot of safety measures in place, it’s impossible for it to completely protect every teacher and student, he said. He expects that the first week back will include a lot of adjustments as schools determine how best to run things.

“As a classroom teacher, you can have the best laid plan and when you put people in it sometimes you have to remodel it,” Wilcox said.

Munn said that attendance has been lower this school year than in previous years, which is something the district is very concerned about. 

The average daily attendance for remote learning was 88.7%, according to district spokesperson Corey Christansen. The district’s enrollment was also lower than projected. K-12 enrollment is currently at 29,111, down from a projected 29,928.

Munn said he hopes that going back to in-person learning will lead to an increase in enrollment, especially among younger grades.

“I think some parents were waiting for the opportunity for their kindergartener to start off in person, so I expect to see that increase,” he said.