Parents rallied in Castle Rock on Friday, calling for Douglas County schools to fully reopen this school year, a week after the county school district announced it would operate on a "hybrid" model alternating between online and in-person learning to start the 2020-21 school year.
People rallied for a number of reasons, they said. Some did not believe there was a significant health risk to full in-person learning, and said local data does not warrant a hybrid or online model. Other said that shuttering schools is politically motivated.
Everyone who spoke to Colorado Community Media said children’s education will suffer if they don’t return to 100% in-person learning, five days a week.
Under the hybrid system, students would be offered two days of in-person learning each week alternating with three days of remote learning online.
Merideth Likes said she has four children in the district — two students who attend Rock Canyon High School, plus a middle school student and an elementary school student who attend the charter school American Academy.
Under current district rules, her children at American Academy will return to 100% in-person learning while her children who attend Rock Canyon will choose the hybrid learning option available at district-run schools.
Likes said she wants her children in high school, one of which will be a senior, to have a normal school year, the chance to see friends, attend homecoming and participate in athletics.
Hybrid and online learning puts pressure on families to make up for what children lose academically and socially, she said.
“We as parents now feel that we have to supplement,” she said.
Likes wanted additional detail from the school district on its plan to reopen schools, saying she received more thorough updates from American Academy, which made her feel confident students can safely return in-person at the charter school.
Protesting next to Likes was Andrea Pickett. The Highlands Ranch woman has four children in the district and said she felt blindsided by the district’s announcement on July 25 it would open schools with a hybrid model.
The Douglas County School Board held a special, hours-long meeting on July 25 to approve the district’s reentry plan. Until that time, the district planned to reopen schools to 100% in-person learning, five days a week.
Directors and district leaders shifted course by the meeting’s end, in part citing a recent rise in case positivity rates in Douglas County.
“I was really disappointed. I was angry and upset,” Pickett said. “I really think it is so important for our kids to be back in the classroom.”
Both Likes and Pickett said local data does not justify hybrid or online learning for the entire school district.
As of July 31, Douglas County had confirmed 1,713 cases, 191 hospitalizations and 58 deaths dure to COVID-19.
Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John Douglas said July 25 that Douglas County’s case positive rate had risen from roughly 3% to 6% in the past two weeks.
Douglas County Superintendent Thomas Tucker said the positivity rate played heavily into his recommendation for hybrid learning. He has cautioned the district could need to pivot plans quickly if local COVID-19 data trends improve or worsen.
On July 25, board directors said starting with a hybrid model could help schools transition to full remote "e-learning" or full in-person learning quickly if either become necessary.
On Friday, Melanie Cline protested with her husband, Ryan, and their two children. The Parker couple enrolls their children at SkyView Academy, which is offering families the option of in-person and eLearning.
Parents cannot replace the training and skill of teachers, she said, and she wants students to learn from professional educators on a full-time basis in school.
“We love our teachers,” she said.
Cline said she wants the school district to offer families the choice of sending students back completely in-person or online and came to the protest to support families at district-run schools opposed to the current plan.
“We just want freedom of choice,” she said.
Brad Stettler of Castle Rock criticized the district for choosing hybrid learning after it sent a survey to families earlier this summer asking if they preferred 100% in-person or 100% e-learning.
The district received more than 32,000 responses to its fall 2020 "DCSD In-Person or Remote/Online Learning Preference" survey. Given a choice between 100% in-person and 100% e-learning, 84% of respondents indicated they would choose in-person learning.
“Then they changed their minds and switched to something that wasn’t even an option,” he said. “What’s the point of taking a vote if you are going to ignore your constituents?”
Tucker cautioned July 25 the breakdown of who preferred in-person to eLearning could change "now that we've really fleshed out out, really our third optionm our second-person option, which is the hybrid model."
Stettler has an 11-year-old and 5-year-old who attend Clear Sky Elementary. He worries their education will be set back if schools don’t return to full in-person learning. He preferred plans to reopen schools in-person and allow teachers at-risk for COVID-19 to conduct e-learning.
“There is no way my 5-year-old is going to learn as much from an iPad,” he said.
Another protester, Chris Becker of Highlands Ranch, called calls to close schools politically motivated, and said he believes teachers unions nationally hope shuttering schools will hurt the economy and President Donald Trump’s chances at re-election.
Becker said he has three children who attend Saddle Ranch Elementary. He said he does not believe children can contract or spread COVID-19.
When asked if he worried about transmission of the disease among adults, Becker said COVID-19 is less contagious than the flu and teachers would be safe if they wore masks, adding: “I frankly believe they are lazy.”
“Public teachers are using this,” he said, “to not work for their pay.”
Local teachers union members rallied on July 22, calling on the district to open schools safely and with a number of precautions in place. Those included weekly COVID-19 tests for teachers, spacing desks 6 feet apart and requiring everyone to wear face coverings inside district buildings.
The union, known locally as the Douglas County Federation, has not advocated shutting down schools, said its president, Kallie Leyba, and the union’s national organization has issued two studies on how to reopen schools safely.
Leyba said a hybrid model is the best way for schools to achieve social distancing. After watching the July 25 school board meeting, Leyba said she felt school board directors came to the best decision for reopening schools given the pandemic’s status in Douglas County, she said.
DCF member and Highlands Ranch High School teacher Maria Volker spoke to Colorado Community Media following the board’s July 25 decision. She said hybrid learning is the best compromise.
Volker said she needs to work and would have felt forced to return to teaching if the district stuck to its 100% in-person learning plan. She said the board listened “to all sides” by choosing hybrid.
“I am scared,” she said. “For me, for kids, for family, but I think they made a good choice.”
The Douglas County Federation is still advocating for some changes to the district’s plan, Leyba said, and will ask that schools use a block schedule rather than having teachers hold seven or eight periods a day.
A block schedule would limit teachers’ exposure to students, lessen how often students pass each other in school halls and shrink the number of people needing to quarantine if someone contracts the virus.
“We have wanted to get back into the classroom for the last four months,” Leyba said in an email. “Our message has been consistent — we believe that the best way to educate our kids is in the schools. We need the community to help make that a reality by doing everything they can to keep our transmission rates down.”
This story is from Colorado Community Media, a family of 20 newspapers and websites covering metro Denver communities. For more, visit coloradocommunitymedia.com.