Aurora Public Schools board votes to remove kindergarten, special needs students from in-person learning

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AURORA | In an at-times contentious meeting Tuesday, the Aurora Public Schools board voted to move kindergarteners, preschoolers and students with special needs to online learning through winter break along with the rest of the student body.

The board voted last month to move students to remote learning through at least Nov. 20 after COVID-19 cases began to rise in the district, and on Monday superintendent Rico Munn announced that the change would continue through winter break. Kindergarten and preschool students and some students with specific learning needs, including those in the early stages of English language learning, those with disabilities and those taking classes at Pickens Technical College, were exempt.

But at the board meeting, some members expressed frustration with the way Munn had announced the decision, saying he had not communicated with the board enough, and voiced concern over the safety of having any students in classrooms.

Munn and the board have not always seen eye-to-eye on how to handle the pandemic, with Munn stating repeatedly over the course of the school year that he believes the safest place for students to be is in school. The board has erred on the side of caution: it voted at the beginning of the school year to start remotely, and again to bring students back to remote learning last month just after they had returned to the classroom.

Board member Vicki Reinhard said that when she proposed over the summer allowing certain groups of students to remain in the classroom, she envisioned it on a much narrower basis, and not including entire grade levels of students. Several other board members concurred.

President Kyla Armstrong-Romero said she didn’t understand why preschool and kindergarten students were able to be in the classroom if it wasn’t safe for the rest of the students.

Munn, who had lobbied in October for more students to stay in person, said that he believed that if the schools followed all mitigation measures then it would be safe to have students in classrooms, and if he thought that was scalable to all grades he would want more back.

“Given that conclusion, I will always fight to have kids in schools,” he said.

In response to a question from board member Marques Ivey, Munn said that he has balanced feedback from different groups when making decisions. 

“I’ve spoken to crying teachers, I’ve spoken to crying parents, I’ve spoken to crying students who all have different perspectives on the challenges that we’re facing,” he said. “And let’s be clear, there is one common enemy here and it is the coronavirus.”

Though Munn felt confident schools could be kept safe, board members were much less sure. Several reference Gov. Jared Polis’ recent exhortation for Coloradans not to interact with people outside of their households in the face of rapidly rising case numbers.

Armstrong-Romero said she worries that students in the classroom are “guinea pigs,” and she did not want the board to make decisions reactively. She noted that the surrounding districts have brought students home as well.

“If the data were kids are safer in schools, everyone’s safer to be in the buildings, why are these different districts making these changes?” she said. “Should we follow suit or should we wait until someone dies? I hate to say it like that but that’s the reality.”

In response to a motion from Reinhard the board ultimately voted 6-1 to cancel in-person learning for all students, with Debra Gerkin the one no vote. The transition will be made after Thanksgiving break.

The decision is bound to frustrate many parents and students who are tired of online learning. During public comment, 7th grade student Brooklynn Colbert told the board that online learning is not working and should only be used on a school-by-school basis to control COVID-19 spread.

“The response of ‘we are doing our best’ or ‘how can we make remote learning better?’ are just not good enough,” she said. “The damage being done by isolating students and restricting our access to learning is big. When will we see that the solution that’s been put into place is actually worse than the problem?”

Later in the meeting, planning coordinator Joshua Hensley provided the board with another enrollment update. At the beginning of the school year, the district projected that its enrollment would decline due to COVID-19 at the beginning and then stabilize. However, the district lost about twice as many students as it projected — 1,600 instead of 850.

Enrollment steadily declined throughout the first month of the school year but is now believed to be stable, he said. The biggest enrollment declines were in preschool and kindergarten students, the other grades saw enrollment dips of about 2%.

Based on the data most of the decline is being driven by a lack of new students entering the district, Hensley said. Usually about 14%-15% of students leave the district after each summer, but this year only around 12% did. However, new students made up only 8% of the district’s population this year instead of the usual 11% to 12%.

That may be caused by fewer families moving into the district, or new families electing to keep them enrolled in their previous school because of remote learning or choosing to homeschool, Hensley said.

The district doesn’t yet know what this data means for future enrollment trends, but “it’s something we’re going to be paying attention to over the course of the year,” he said.