Luke Ragland

This year has been a doozy. The combination of COVID, economic collapse, lockdowns, and social unrest have made our daily lives darker and more stressful. But School District 49 offered us all a ray of light this week when they announced that they will be returning for a full time, in-person school year this fall.

District 49 was one of the first school districts in the state to announce plans to fully reopen. While other school districts have been overwhelmingly hesitant to step out and create a back-to-school plan that includes full-time classroom education, D49’s leadership and school board had the guts to create a common sense plan that puts students first. To date, only two other districts in the entire state have announced plans to fully reopen this fall.

Governor Jared Polis has asked that educators and school districts create contingency plans for their schools and include options for both hybrid and in-person class time when school returns in August. Most school districts seem to be taking the “bare minimum” approach and suggesting that full time models should only be implemented as contingency plans.

The school administrators and teachers in District 49 set the bar high with a full five-day schedule. The governor has made it clear that 20 to 25 students will likely be the norm, yet most districts are not planning around those guidelines, opting instead to try and create unworkable plans that try to limit classrooms to 10 or fewer students.

We all understand that the path to safely reopening schools is going to be bumpy. There will be stops and starts, and there will be setbacks. We might even have to close some schools again in the case of a severe second spike. The truth is that things are very uncertain. But in light of this uncertainty, why not start with the best case scenario approach to planning for our students to return? We know we can scale back if we need to, but unless we start with the expectation that schools reopen, the only certainty will be that students are harmed.

COVID-19 has a many negative impacts on our families. We have lost loved ones, while many others have been hospitalized. But the lockdowns in response to the virus have created many additional harmful impacts beyond our physical health. School lockdowns will have terrible impacts on students’ learning.

The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) released a report predicting severe learning losses, particularly in math. Their findings indicate that when students begin the school year in the fall, they may only retain 70% of learning gains in reading compared to a normal year and less than 50% of learning gains in math. In some grades, students might lose a full year of progress in math. Kids only get one shot at school, so they simply cannot withstand another year of subpar education without sustaining permanent damage.

Thankfully, we now know that COVID-19 is significantly less dangerous to children. Colorado COVID-19 case data has found that of the reported COVID cases in children ages 0-9, no cases have been fatal. If we look at the total population of school-aged children in our state, estimated between 850,000-900,000 students, the percentage of a child getting COVID comes close to 0.03%–a small percentage that does not justify keeping all kids away from school or planning for part-time school days.

Looking forward, we have to reject the false dichotomy between safety and reopening schools. We can have both. District 49 is showing us that reopening schools in a manner that is both safe and responsible is possible.

As we plan for students and teachers to return to school in the fall, let’s follow District 49’s lead and plan for the best-case scenario—students and teachers safely back in the classroom full-time. If school board members, teachers, and families across the state use District 49’s plan as a model, we can make sure kids don’t fall further behind and ensure our communities are kept safe. More than anything, let’s remember that our kids’ futures are at stake.

Luke Ragland is President of Ready Colorado, an advocacy group that represents the interests of families in the education system.

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