APS will begin school year virtually, at home, school board says

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AURORA | After months of planning to reopen schools, Aurora Public Schools students will instead start their school year learning on a computer at home, school board members decided Friday. 

Board of education members directed the school system to reverse course on opening its doors, citing a plethora of unknown circumstances and unanswered questions in district plans as well as a concerning uptick in COVID-19 incidences in the Aurora region. 

Students will now learn at home for the first academic quarter of the school year in a more fleshed-out version of remote learning than what students experienced in the spring. 

School board members said they will monitor pandemic conditions and plan for a gradual reopening. 

“I want to also let the community know that I understand the pressures of families that … have more needs at home and need that child in school,” said board Vice President Kevin Cox during the meeting. “I’m just keeping in mind that I don’t want your child to come to school and not come home, or to bring something home to you so that you are not able to be there for your child anymore.” 

The decision came after school board members pressed the district for more questions earlier this week and expressed skepticism that students and teachers could safely don masks and join in classrooms. 

Following advice from the Colorado Department of Education and health authorities, APS had planned for students to be grouped into “cohorts” and separated from each other to reduce viral spread and expedite contact tracing. If a child in one cohort tested positive for the new coronavirus, the entire cohort would land back at home to learn remotely for 14 days.

Those plans might still materialize later in the school year.

With the new direction from the school board, Superintendent Rico Munn and his staff will have to change course. But the school district planners have already mulled a more robust online curriculum for students at all grade levels. 

“We will continue our planning for rigorous remote learning for APS students in the fall and continue to plan for a transition to in-person learning when there is no longer a concerning increase in COVID-19 cases,” spokesperson Corey Christiansen said in a statement.  “The health and safety of our students, staff and community is our top priority. We remain grounded in science and public health guidance.”   

This week, Aurora teachers told the Sentinel and union representatives they were afraid to return to teach in-person. Teacher union leaders said Tuesday 75% of school staff who responded to a broad survey said they were moderately concerned or had major concerns  and did not feel safe at all about returning to school. 

However, remote learning poses equity issues for students without reliable access to internet and technology. APS staff have already handed out thousands of computers to meet that need. Board members also acknowledged that the switch to online learning will strain parents who have to work outside of their home. 

Munn said he was personally concerned by recent pandemic conditions in the Aurora region. Tri-County Health Department data shows the 14-day incidence rates per 100,000 people — a key metric — are at high levels for both Adams and Arapahoe counties. New COVID-19 cases have also spiked in the region during July.

With the move, APS will follow Denver Public Schools and districts in Los Angeles, Phoenix and other major U.S. cities to begin the school year virtually.