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In this Gazette file photo, ,second-grader Qiyana Bryant gets her temperature checked before entering the lunchroon at Coperni 3 public K-7 charter school in Colorado Springs in August. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette file photo)

Everybody seems to agree that kids learn best when they’re in class with their peers, not at home on a computer.

With Gov. Jared Polis now calling on Colorado schools to provide in-person classroom instruction for preschool through elementary school students, the question is whether that’s feasible in these COVID-19 times.

Many Pikes Peak region school districts are finding it’s not.

"We're continuing to try to stay open and in person to the best of our ability, as long as it's safe," said Julie Stephen, spokeswoman for Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument. 

But D-38 announced on Wednesday that high school students will join several other Colorado school districts in moving to remote learning beginning Nov. 30. Middle school students began remote learning as of Nov. 18.

"It's the quarantines to keep people well that are impacting our operations," Stephen said.

The district will maintain in-person instruction at its elementary schools and HomeSchool Enrichment Program, she said, unless staff shortages prevent that.

Academy School District 20 doesn't have enough staff to keep its buildings open, said Allison Cortez, spokeswoman for the more than 26,000-student district.

As of Tuesday, nearly 15% of the district’s school population was at home under COVID-19 quarantine, she said.

On Monday, D-20 said the last holdout, its 24 elementary schools, also will move to remote learning after schools let out on Friday for Thanksgiving break and for the remaining three weeks of the fall semester. High schools and middle schools were slated to do so last week.

In announcing the state’s new levels of pandemic restrictions Tuesday, Polis said that preschool through elementary school children should be taught in classrooms, and middle school students should be in class or doing a mixture of on-site and off-site learning or remote learning. High school students should be learning under hybrid or remote models, the governor said.

A lack of substitute teachers and stricter quarantining regulations imposed on schools have led to fewer classrooms being filled with students, officials said.

“We definitely feel schools are a safe place to be, and we want to be open,” said Christy McGee, spokeswoman for Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8, a medium-size district of 14 schools, including several on Fort Carson.

“But we can’t keep enough staff to where we feel school is a consistent and equitable place to learn.”

As El Paso County moved on Nov. 13 to a higher level on the COVID restriction scale, schools moved from being able to do targeted quarantining, with just students that were in the immediate vicinity of the infected person, to a more widespread range of exposure.

That took effect in schools on Monday and “made things difficult,” McGee said.

As of Thursday, Fountain-Fort Carson D-8 is switching middle and high school students to remote learning, with a goal of keeping its two preschools and eight elementary schools open through the rest of the semester.

“We don’t have high numbers of actual positive cases, and we have low transmission rates,” McGee said. “But the change in how people have to quarantine is much more restrictive.”

It means one infected student or teacher can potentially expose 100 others in a middle school or high school, said D-20’s Cortez.

D-20 elementary students stay in the same classroom, eat lunch at their desks and spend recess with their same group of peers, so potential exposure is lower, she said. But still, “We’ve had 10 to 15 elementary schools in e-learning because there were so many staff members in quarantine in our schools.”

While D-20’s substitute teacher list has 500 to 600 names on it, many are retirees who decline to fill in, Cortez said.

“There’s some trepidation for coming into schools that have had to quarantine numbers of people,” she said. “There’s still that fear.”

So full-time teachers have had to teach multiple classes, Cortez said.

Substitute teachers were hard to come by before COVID, said Joe Schott, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, the teachers’ union for Colorado Springs School District 11.

“Now, the challenges are heightened,” he said, “and teachers are being enlisted more and more to serve as substitutes during their own workdays.

“That adds pressure to a taxing situation.”

Polis said he plans to provide more funding in coming weeks and months for schools to open outdoor classrooms or acquire additional protective supplies, “whatever schools and districts need to get back (to in-person teaching) safely.”

The first responsibility of schools is and has to continue to be the safety of students and staff, Schott said.

“The notion that schools are somehow immune to COVID is nonsensical,” he said. “A virus does not distinguish victims by school status.”

All D-11 schools will switch to remote learning after Thanksgiving.

“While there’s not a uniform opinion among teachers, the majority have said they recognize that continuing with in-person instruction would engage in a high-risk pursuit with ramifications for students, students’ families and the community in general, in addition to teachers’ own families,” Schott said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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