Cherry Creek to offer daily classes for all students, ‘encourage’ masks, provide remote-learning option

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Students board the bus at sunrise on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 near Orchard and Parker roads.
Photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | Cherry Creek School District parents will soon have to choose whether their students will join classes in-person or learn at home for the entire school year, district leaders said Monday night, and officials are planning to have all students — from pre-school through grade 12, — return to class for full school days in August.

The disclosures were part of the most detailed learning plans discussed to-date at a Cherry Creek school board meeting Monday night.

School board members also voted to create a task force focused on examining the role of policing in Cherry Creek schools.

The district pays four police departments to have officers regularly stationed in schools and respond to incidents, such as drug possession or school violence. That task force will be made up of community members looking at data concerning racial equity in policing, examining policies and possibly recommending a new status quo in student policing.

Denver Public Schools recently turned back its longstanding school resource officer program in light of police reform protests and controversy in Colorado and across the nation. 

The school board also approved what may be the first version of the district’s 2020-2021 budget. The financial plan shaves $25 million from school funding in response to a budget cut at the state level because of the pandemic-induced recession. 

Although the plan doesn’t include teacher layoffs, furloughs, or pay cuts, staff will see a salary freeze and have to contribute more to their state pension plans. 

But much of the focus of Monday night’s meeting involved detailing a possible path for the 2020-2021 school year district officials have landed on: in-person schooling for all students — and their families — who want to walk through the double doors during a global pandemic. 

Superintendent Scott Siegfried cited evidence that children transmit the novel coronavirus at lower rates than adults. Children are also less at risk of succumbing to the disease, making it possible to reopen schools with precautions, Siegfried said, citing a Denver metroplex consortium of educators, health authorities and research agencies keeping school districts in the loop. 

The new reopening plans, which are detailed on the district’s website, allow the district to “do what we believe is good and right for our students and put in place mitigation measures for our staff,” Siegfried said. He said current student needs like mental health supports aren’t met when all students are home. 

The plans could change. But the Monday disclosure represents the most detailed disclosure of school reopening plans in months of brutal preparation. 

To meet the needs of kids who do stay at home, the district budgeted to invest about $4.75 million in computers and technology for impoverished students who don’t have regular access to technology and otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in remote learning. 

According to the plans, parents will soon have to decide whether their child will be learning at home or in-person for the school year.  Officials are cautioning that a student opting to learn in-person might still land back at home if school and area pandemic conditions worsen, as is expected in the coming months. 

Teachers who are vulnerable to serious effects from the new coronavirus, or who are  worried about exposure, can apply to the district to work from home for the school year, district spokesperson Abbe Smith said. It’s a process that falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, it’s not guaranteed that the district will approve requests.

Jennifer Perry, assistant superintendent of educational operations, said that choice is necessary. She said schools have to know definitively how many students to expect. 

Siegfried said he expected 13% to 20% of students to opt for staying at home this year. 

Kids who venture to school, whether in second grade or their sophomore year of high school, will have some shared experiences in the current district plans. 

Inside schools, students will physically distance from each other “when we can,” Siegfried said. 

That won’t be a hard-and-fast rule. Generally, students young and old will be also encouraged to wear masks and wash their hands. 

Siegfried asked parents not to make the issue political and instead consider the move a simple one to keep kids in schools. His target for mask-wearing is 80 percent of school occupants. 

At the elementary school level, children would be “cohorted” and kept with the same group of students throughout the day.

However, Perry acknowledged that students who are friends or neighbors but in different cohorts will want to hang out during lunch or recess. School staff won’t go to great lengths to stop them, she said. 

In middle school, students would be kept in their separate grade levels. Schools would elongate classes and reduce the number of classrooms a student sits in per day to reduce travel throughout the day. 

For example, a middle school student might sit in just four class periods a day. Lunch and recess would be kept to grade levels. 

In middle schools and high schools, schools would “stagger” student arrival times and dismissals to reduce possible transmissions. Lockers will also be a thing of the past to keep kids from congregating and “clogging” hallways, Perry said. 

For high school students, class schedules could also change dramatically. 

In the plans, a student would attend two classes, near 2 hours and 15 minutes each, per day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Kids could still go off-campus during lunch, but their movements would be limited during free periods when a student doesn’t have a class scheduled. Here, masks and some temperature checks would also be a reality. 

Perry acknowledged that there is risk involved in attending school during a pandemic. 

“Obviously, someone is going to get sick — could get sick — whether that is kids, parents, staff,” she said. “So we will have to manage that. But that could be the case when going to the grocery store.”

Siegfried said the district doesn’t have a standard yet for when to close schools during outbreaks. 

He said the status quo was tested recently for one unnamed sports team in the district. One student-athlete tested positive for the novel coronavirus, sending the team into quarantine for the standard 14-day period. 

Siegfried said that standard would quickly put schools out of commission because of how many people a student might come into contact with a day.

To that end, Cherry Creek nurses are working with the Tri-County Health Department to develop contact tracing capacities, Siegfried said, before school starts on Aug. 17.

This story has been updated to reflect that teachers can apply to work from home for the school year as well, but it’s not guaranteed that the district will honor those requests.