State education officials can’t definitively say yet whether students will return to classes in the fall, but a preliminary tool kit the Colorado Department of Education released Tuesday details how public and private schools can be ready for every imaginable scenario.
“Our goal is to start in-person learning in the fall, but we need to see how the data progresses,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said during a virtual media briefing about new draft guidelines for reopening.
What happens with the COVID-19 pandemic and advice from public health officials will direct the decision, she said.
“We hear the frustration and anxiety, and unfortunately, we’re just not going to have the answer very soon, if we can start school in the fall as normal or if there will be precautions in place,” Anthes said.
“This tool kit is meant to provide options so school districts can plan for whatever happens in the fall.”
The five-section tool kit includes requirements, recommendations and considerations for schools and is meant to be used not as a “one size fits all” approach but as a starting place for local districts, which have the authority over final practices, she said.
While a small rural district might be able to bring back everyone at once and accommodate new social distancing norms that call for desks to be spaced 6 feet apart, larger metro districts might need to stagger instruction, with one group of students attending in-person classes one day and another group the next day, Anthes said.
But everywhere, certain practices designed to keep students and staff safe will be in place, bringing contactless measures to classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, playgrounds and athletic fields.
Students and staff might have their temperatures taken before entering the building, for example, and older children and staff might need to wear facial coverings.
Students might be seated in every other row on the bus, stay in the same classroom while teachers rotate and eat lunch in the classroom instead of the cafeteria.
They might have to use one-way hallways, not be able to store stuff in lockers and attend school just a few days a week and do remote learning on the other days.
Schools will be urged to identify high-risk students, younger students and others who might need more in-person contact with teachers and work to provide that, Anthes said.
School leaders have been reaching out to students who never signed on for online learning from mid-March when Colorado schools closed through the end of classes to find out if they have moved or need assistance with remote learning, she said.
“We’re incredibly concerned about the students who haven’t logged on, and we’re trying to find as many of them as possible.”
The draft guidelines will be updated after a new advisory committee, the general public and the State Board of Education weigh in on the proposals, Anthes said.
What schools should do if they have someone test positive for COVID-19 also are included, as well as toggling from in-person to remote learning in the event schools close due to an outbreak.
“Districts will have to decide what works best for them,” Anthes said, “and they have the authority to determine this.”
As the guidelines move from draft to final, it will become a matter of “taking their advice and making it work in our education environment,” said Carrie Brenner, principal of Cheyenne Mountain High School in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.
Reopening plans are not yet set for the district in southwest Colorado Springs.
“We’ve been brainstorming and problem-solving to open and stay open in the fall to fully engage our students academically,” Brenner said.
The school is devising A, B, C and D situations because “there are so many uncertainties,” she said.
“We’re looking at what to do if we have to limit the number of students in the buildings — does that mean we go to school twice a week? We’re keeping all the options on the table.”
Harrison School District 2 in southeast Colorado Springs also is working on creating several plans for school operations, which in D-2 will be set by July 1, said Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel.
“We’ll come back in some form of in-person instruction in the fall,” she said. “And we’ll have the remote piece available for some who may not want to or be able to come back.
“It’ll be a pretty solid plan that we’ll be able to adapt as needed.”
Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which operates The School of Excellence for severe special-needs students in multiple area school districts, became “like a test guinea pig” when it reopened for three weeks this month under various social distancing measures, said Executive Director Pat Bershinsky.
Fifteen students rotated attending school Monday through Thursday at the Colorado Springs location off South Circle Drive and 10 students rotated each day at a new school site in Calhan.
Staff wore masks, there were temperature checks, bottled water for everyone instead of drinking fountains and constant cleaning of door handles and other surfaces. Fridays were designated for “deep cleaning,” Bershinsky said.
“It went well,” he said. “The staff were ready to come back, and the students were ready.”
Other schools in the Pikes Peak region have been getting a practice run of sorts in recent weeks, with students returning to some schools to retrieve their belongings they left after buildings closed in mid-March.
Modified in-person graduation ceremonies for seniors, which began being held over the weekend with a governor-approved variance to allow the events, also are providing a look at what’s to come.
Seniors who attended one of three drive-by graduation parades and photo ops had to fill out questionnaires to ensure they did not have symptoms of illness before going on the school grounds, wore masks and did not touch anything except to pick up items, such as yard signs, that they were taking home with them.
“We need to get our kids back,” Harrison D-2’s Birhanzel said. “We miss them in the classroom.”
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