Colorado school reopening updates: School districts can continue serving free meals to all students

Sept. 1

Change in federal regulations means more students can get free school meals

All Colorado children can get free meals at participating school sites this fall, after the federal government changed course on food service rules.

When Colorado school districts closed in the spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed them to serve all children and still get reimbursed for those meals. Families didn’t even have to attend a school in order to pick up food there. These summer meal program rules, invoked months early, were a key component of efforts to keep children from going hungry.

Those rules were set to expire at the end of August. Most Colorado school districts had said that without federal reimbursement, they would have to charge students for meals unless their families met income eligibility requirements.

That changed this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under pressure from school leaders and advocates, said it would extend the more generous summer food service rules through as late as December, depending on funding availability.

Denver Public Schools considers earlier return for some elementary students

Based on current public health conditions, Denver Public Schools may bring back some elementary students earlier than originally planned, Superintendent Susana Cordova said Friday in an email to parents.

Denver is holding classes remotely through the end of the first quarter Oct. 16. Cordova made that decision in July when many public health officials were sounding the alarm over the rate of increase in COVID cases. Since then, the number of new cases each day and the percentage of people testing positive have both declined.

Earlier this week the district announced plans to bring preschool students back to school buildings in September. Cordova has also said the district might bring back students who are considered especially vulnerable, including those with disabilities who rely on school-based services and those in the earliest stages of learning English, before October.

But on Friday, she indicated the district is considering a broader return for elementary students. Younger children are at less risk of serious illness and may transmit the virus less efficiently than older children. It’s also harder to meet their needs through online instruction.

In her email, Cordova pointed to the “stoplight metrics” developed by metro area public health agencies to guide reopening decisions. Denver remains between 50 and 100 cases per 100,000 residents, a yellow rating that calls for cautious monitoring, but the rate of increase in new cases in the last two weeks, as well as test positivity, are both rated green.

“Based on our consultation with Denver Health on where the stoplight metrics are today, we believe that we can move forward with a gradual return of more students, particularly at the younger grades,” she wrote. “We will be engaging with our school leaders and educators on what that might look like and potential timing of an earlier return for some students.”

“Through our ongoing collaboration with our school leaders and teachers, we’ve heard from many educators and parents a strong desire to begin offering in-person school for all elementary grades,” Cordova continued. “This is where the remote-learning challenges are the greatest, and we need to make sure we’re maximizing academic growth and whole-child support for our youngest learners, while following all health and safety guidelines.”

Cordova said the color-coded ratings won’t determine on their own whether schools open or close but will guide conversations with public health officials.

Details about which students might return to the classroom and when are still to be determined.

“I know we’re all eager to have our school buildings open and our classrooms buzzing again,” Cordova wrote. “We truly appreciate your continued patience and flexibility as we’ve worked together to ensure we’re using health and safety standards to guide all of our reopening decisions.”

Cherry Creek bars students from campus over mask violations

On the first day that students were back at Cherry Creek High School, a large group gathered on the grounds and took pictures with friends that they posted to Instagram. In many of the pictures, the students can be seen embracing and leaning on each other. They’re not wearing masks.

Their friends weren’t the only ones checking out their pictures. #suspended, some of the students soon wrote in the comments.

A spokesperson for the Cherry Creek district said the students — 41 in all — were not “suspended” but told to stay home for a week “because of the potential exposure.” More typically, people are told to quarantine for two weeks after a potential exposure.

The students missed one day of instruction, since this was a phase-in week for Cherry Creek students, with one grade level in the building each day. They will be allowed to attend class on Monday.

The students were also issued first mask violations. Multiple violations will result in students being transferred to online school, according to district policy.

“The action taken was out of a concern for health and safety and was based in district protocols around COVID,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Weld County school district warns students against coming to school while awaiting test results

After sending 11 staff members and 37 students home to quarantine due to possible COVID exposure, a Weld County school district is threatening to suspend students who come to school while waiting for test results.

The Weld Re-4 district based in Windsor brought students back to school this week. On Monday, a district spokeswoman said school was going well, and students seemed to be doing a good job following the rules. On Friday, the district announced that 48 people at Windsor Middle School would have to stay home until Sept. 10 after a student tested positive. The students will have learn online.

The district said it had added COVID testing to its discipline policy. Students who test positive for COVID or who are waiting for test results and who come to school without disclosing that information could be subject to suspension or expulsion.

“As you know, we are trying our best to keep our doors open and students learning in person without disruption for as long as possible,” the district said. “Given that goal, moving forward if your child is awaiting a COVID-19 test, he or she must stay home until you receive the results.”

About 15% of Denver teachers request to work remotely

In many school districts, teachers who more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 — or who live with someone who is — can request an accommodation to teach remotely from home.

That’s the case in Denver Public Schools, and Superintendent Susana Cordova on Wednesday said that as of last week, nearly 700 teachers, 32 principals, and about 400 other in-school staff members had requested to work remotely instead.

Denver has about 4,800 teachers, meaning about 15% requested an accommodation.

Cordova said last week that about 30% of Denver students had requested to learn 100% remotely. But students’ decision isn’t binding; families are able to change their minds.

Denver starts school Monday, though instruction will be remote for everyone until at least Oct. 16. After that, the district may reopen campuses for in-person learning.

Teachers in Sheridan walk out, ask for delay to the first day of school

Sheridan teachers took to the streets Friday afternoon, just before classes are set to start Monday, in protest of what they say are unsafe conditions.

The district had teachers in school buildings this week and last as it prepares for students to return. On Monday one teacher, who had no symptoms, had already tested positive for COVID-19 and went on quarantine along with another staff member who was exposed. A district spokesman said the teacher has now tested negative, but is still saying home as a precaution.

Ashley Richter, communicable disease epidemiologist manager for Tri-County Public Health, said that the process of working with Sheridan went well. The agency also worked this week with Mapleton Public Schools where a teacher there also tested positive.

Both districts are planning for in-person learning in the next couple of weeks, and staff have begun going into school buildings to prepare.

“I don’t think we’re surprised by this,” Richter said. “People are out moving around in the community. So I don’t think that these couple of cases that we’re seeing trigger any change for us. That’s not to say additional positives wouldn’t.”

But not much has calmed fears among teachers this week.

“We feel that cases are inevitable and we are getting that same message from the district,” said Matt Blomquist, teacher and union president in the district. “Our question is why then are we doing this?”

He said teachers are asking the Sheridan school district to stagger the beginning of the school year, starting with a two-week delay, and said that the union resorted to Friday’s walkout after being unable to negotiate changes to specific safety concerns.

For its part, the district put out a statement this week, after a rowdy school board meeting, where it reiterated its plans to start classes Monday. The district detailed safety measures it has put in place such as providing masks, gaiters and face shields for students and staff, and installing touchless water fountains at the high school.

Read more: Limiting class sizes and alternating older students in the buildings, Sheridan plans on a hybrid return to schools

— Yesenia Robles

Aug. 11

Little less than a third of Denver families opting for virtual learning so far

Denver Public Schools is offering families two choices this fall: 100% virtual learning, or an in-person option that will actually start remotely. Though not all families have indicated their preference yet, Superintendent Susana Cordova said Tuesday that about 30% of families have said they prefer 100% virtual learning.

Read more: Hybrid, remote, or in person? Colorado back-to-school plans carry big trade-offs

Cordova noted that the choice isn’t binding for families, meaning they can change their minds once school starts. That’s a change from a previous requirement that families make a binding decision in August for the first quarter of the school year.

School is scheduled to start in Denver on Aug. 24. All students will learn remotely until at least Oct. 16, when the district will evaluate whether to reopen school campuses. Cordova said local public health officials are working on metrics to determine if doing so is safe.

Read more: Q&A: What families should know about Denver Public Schools’ fall plans

School buildings may reopen sooner than Oct. 16 to small groups of students who would benefit the most from in-person instruction, including preschool students, students with disabilities, and students learning English as a second language, Cordova has said.

On Tuesday, she said the district is also working on setting up “learning centers” at its schools. The idea is similar to what the Adams 12 Five Star district is offering through its free “learning pods”: a supervised place for students to do their virtual learning.

Aug. 4

Four school districts in northern Colorado change plans, will start remotely

Citing concerns about rising cases in the community and the long wait to get test results, four more Colorado school districts announced Tuesday that they’ll start the school year with online learning.

“The way we prevent outbreaks in our schools is to test, trace, and isolate,” Tom Gonzales, Larimer County public health director, said in a message to families in the Loveland-based Thompson district. “We are seeing a substantial delay in COVID-19 test results from all clinical labs, including the state lab. For contact tracing to be effective, we must obtain timely test results within 2-3 days.

“With cases continuing to rise, counties across the state will struggle to conduct timely contact tracing with this delay in results. This is a state-wide problem that has caused us to reassess our school reopening plans.”

The Thompson school district plans to do online learning at least through Oct. 16. So will the Fort Collins-based Poudre district, also in Larimer County.

The Boulder Valley and St. Vrain districts both pointed to concerning information from Boulder County’s health department that cases are rising in the community. Boulder Valley will remain remote until at least through Sept. 22. St. Vrain, based in Longmont and spanning Boulder and Weld counties, will also remain remote through the end of September.

In a message to the community, St. Vrain Superintendent Don Haddad said continued uncertainty about the role of children in spreading the coronavirus and the large number of parents, teachers, and others raising safety concerns also weighed on his decision.

“Given the significant shift in information and the unrest that exists at this time, we do not believe that an in-person learning model would be conducive to learning and/or physical and emotional well-being,” he wrote.

Aug. 3

Denver Public Schools joins districts offering COVID testing to staff

The Denver district will be among those working with Gary Community Investments to make frequent testing for COVID-19 available to employees.

Denver is currently planning a remote start to the school year, with classes for most students to remain virtual at least through Oct. 16. However, some students, including preschool students and students with disabilities who depend on in-person services, may return to school buildings after Labor Day if public health conditions allow.

The testing program would be available to staff working in schools. It would allow Denver district employees to get tested roughly every two weeks, even if they don’t have symptoms, and get results within 72 hours.

Positive results would be reported to public health authorities and prompt quarantine procedures to limit the spread of the virus.

In a press release, district officials said the program, COVIDCheck Colorado, also allows employees and families to report symptoms to a tracking website every morning. The website in turn may recommend that certain people stay home that day or seek testing.

Polis: Going back to school is ‘reasonably safe’

The day after Denver Public Schools said it would hold classes remotely at least through mid October, Gov. Jared Polis said going back to school is as safe as going to the grocery store or to any other job.

“All the work that Coloradans have put into keep our viral transmission rate low is why it’s safer to open schools in Colorado,” he said. “It is reasonably safe. Many schools are opening. … There are districts that for their own reasons are delaying a decision and beginning out virtually.

“I think the hard work of Coloradans is what has led to the environment where unlike parts of Texas or much of Florida, it’s reasonably safe to open schools, just as it’s reasonably safe to go to the grocery store, it’s reasonably safe to go to work.”

Polis added that his own children will be going back to school.

Polis made the comments two days after he called on Coloradans “not to be stupid” as the state tries to flatten a coronavirus trajectory that public health officials have said could overwhelm hospitals as soon as September.

Colorado districts that are starting the school year remotely — which include Denver, Jeffco, Aurora, Adams 14, Roaring Fork, and Pueblo 70 — have said they made the decision in large part due to the rate of transmission in the community. In some cases, school districts in the same county have come to different conclusions about returning to school, and the state has not issued firm guidelines.

Polis did not elaborate Thursday on the metrics he was using for school safety, though he did say he expects the impact of a statewide mask mandate and closing bars to show up as a reduction in new cases soon.

The rate of positive COVID tests in Colorado has hovered just under 5% in recent weeks. That’s a threshold many public health experts look to when weighing reopening decisions, though it wasn’t developed specifically with schools in mind.

Earlier this month, spokesman Conor Cahill said the state doesn’t have “one bright line” that determines when it’s safe to open schools and that these decisions would largely be made locally. Asked for clarification on Thursday, Cahill said the governor and public health officials “are constantly evaluating and open to new metrics that may be able to help with these important decisions,” but he did not provide any specifics.

Three more districts join effort to provide free COVID testing to staff

Three Adams County school districts announced plans Thursday to provide free COVID-19 testing for their employees every two weeks through a partnership with a Denver-based philanthropic organization.

Mapleton, Westminster, and the Brighton-based District 27J will all receive testing and contract tracing services through “COVIDCheck Colorado,” an effort recently launched by Gary Community Investments. A fourth district, Aurora Public Schools, announced plans to use the service earlier this month.

Through the partnership, district employees will have access to COVID-19 testing before they return to the classroom, as well as every two weeks thereafter — with results in 72 hours or less. Staff can also get tested in the interim if they show symptoms.

The service will be optional for employees. To sign up, they must sign waivers that, among other things, will give districts access to the results.

Plans for reopening schools vary among districts participating in COVIDCheck. Mapleton and Westminster will both offer in-person learning for all grades five days a week this fall. District 27J will offer in-person instruction for elementary students and a hybrid model that includes alternating days of in-person and remote instruction for secondary students. Aurora will start with remote learning for most students, with in-person instruction for small groups of high-needs students, such as those with special needs or who are learning English.

Adams 14 students will start the school year online

The Adams 14 school district is following several other districts in planning to start school online next month.

The school board approved a resolution for a remote-only start to the school year Tuesday evening. Students will continue in remote learning through the first quarter, which ends Oct. 7.

Adams 14 had not previously released a formal plan, but had suggested that in-person learning was most likely. The district was scheduled to be the first in the metro area to start classes in just two weeks. The school year now will start on Aug. 24.

Don Rangel, the acting superintendent for Adams 14, said details on the start of the school year will be published Wednesday and Thursday.

The resolution was not part of the posted agenda for the special meeting, but was added in at the start of the meeting. There was little discussion during the public meeting. The board however, had met in private for more than an hour prior to the public meeting.

Board members said they thought the plan was best to keep students, staff, and families safe.

“This is the safest option for right now,” said board member Maria Zubia. “Moving forward it will be evaluated.”

Several board members said their own families have been impacted by the virus, and board members gave their condolences to board member Regina Hurtado for the loss of a family member to COVID-19.

Another Denver charter network will remain remote until at least October

The STRIVE Prep charter network in Denver will remain remote until at least Oct. 16. In an announcement to families, charter leaders pointed to the high rate of community transmission in Denver. They said that making a decision now would provide more certainty for teachers and families.

“We believe that making a decision now that the academic program will be delivered remotely for the first quarter allows our teachers to plan the best possible program for your children, and allows you to plan thoughtfully without uncertainty for what is to come,” the announcement said.

DSST charter network will stay remote until at least mid-October

Students in Denver Public Schools’ district-run schools will be learning remotely at least until Labor Day. Students in the DSST charter network, meanwhile, will be remote until at least mid-October.

Bill Kurtz, CEO and founder of the Denver-based charter network, made the announcement in an email to parents Monday morning. Kurtz said three factors drove the decision: growing evidence that students older than 10 can transmit the virus as well as adults, desire to create a definitive plan for the start of the school year, and the need to start planning now to improve the remote learning experience.

“We could not see a way to constructively teach students [in person] and keep the community safe,” Kurtz wrote in the email.

Kurtz said he doesn’t believe public health models will provide more clarity about the safety of returning in early September, and he wants to provide more certainty for teachers, students, and parents.

DSST serves almost 6,000 students in nine middle schools and six high schools. Most of the schools are in Denver, and one is in Aurora. Students in the Denver schools will learn remotely until at least Oct. 21, the return from the fall break, while students in the Aurora school would return Oct. 12 in accordance with that district’s plan. Charter schools have flexibility to set their own calendars.

Kurtz also said that unlike the Denver district, DSST will not require families to commit to in-person or remote learning through December. Instead, families will be able to choose a remote option at any time.

Douglas County schools will start the year on a hybrid schedule

Students in the Douglas County School District will attend school just two days a week and learn from home the other three, the school board decided at a special meeting Saturday.

The decision comes as districts around the state are reassessing their back-to-school plans in light of rising cases of the coronavirus. Denver, Jeffco, and Aurora have all announced their intentions to start the school year remotely.

School starts Aug. 17 in Douglas County. Douglas County’s hybrid plan applies to all students starting in preschool.

Douglas County is one of 15 Colorado counties at risk of losing its variance that allows more business activity if case counts don’t come down soon. Douglas County elected officials have often been at odds with state and local public health officials over coronavirus restrictions.

Polis: A surge of coronavirus testing will follow school-based outbreaks

During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis said if there are coronavirus outbreaks at schools this fall, a surge of testing would take place — either in a specific cohort of students or the entire school.

While state officials are still developing specific protocols for school-based outbreaks, he said the goal would be immediate testing spearheaded by the local public health department. He said such testing surges have already happened at other facilities with outbreaks — for example, a Buena Vista prison where 1,200 tests were administered earlier this month.

“There will be site-based outbreaks at schools, like there is in any type of building or office,” Polis said.

In addition to testing, keeping students in consistent groups — known as cohorts — will also play a role in limiting virus spread and preventing schoolwide building closures, he said.

Aurora teachers voice concerns over returning to buildings

During a special board meeting Tuesday night, the leaders of the Aurora teachers union presented survey results showing high levels of staff concern about the district’s plans to return to in-person learning.

According to the presentation, 1,042 district staff members responded to the union’s survey, representing more than two-thirds of its membership. Of those respondents, upwards of 75% had moderate or high levels of concern about the coming school year.

Aurora’s current plan is to return elementary and middle school students to class full time. High schools, meanwhile, would operate at 50% capacity, with ninth- and 10th-graders attending school in the morning and 11th- and 12th-graders coming in the afternoon.

At all levels, the plan relies heavily on the idea of creating cohorts, or groups of students and staff who interact with each other but not with other cohorts at the school.

Peter Zola, another union member, also pointed out that the survey showed that a high number of staff members are worried about family members at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications.

Zola said the district’s survey asks staff about their own health conditions, but not about those of other family or household members. In the union survey, 47% of staff said they had a health risk themselves or were concerned about a family member’s risk.

Superintendent Rico Munn said at the meeting that so far 6.3% of staff respondents have asked for remote assignments based on their vulnerability.

Union leaders said they want more of a role in crafting the fall plans. They have several questions and some specific requests, including some that may have already been addressed by district’s planning teams, but that haven’t yet been communicated to staff.

Munn on Tuesday proposed that the board adopt a monitoring position setting up a pre-condition for allowing the in-person learning plan to move forward. Under that scenario, if both Adams and Arapahoe counties weren’t downgraded from the state’s “high” risk category by Aug. 3, the district would switch to another model to start the school year.

School board members had questions about the monitoring plan. Some of them were uncomfortable proceeding with the in-person plan even for two more weeks, and in the end, no decision was made. The discussion will continue Friday afternoon at another special meeting.

Jeffco teachers ask for school year to start remotely, not in classrooms

The Jeffco teachers union released a statement Monday asking the school district to turn back on its plan to start classes next month with students in school buildings full time.

“While Jeffco educators would like to see school return to normal as much as parents and students do, we have a responsibility to speak up for our school and community safety,” said Brooke Williams, president of the Jefferson County Education Association. “The start of school should be online or be postponed until broader conditions improve and JCEA and Jeffco Schools can come together to agree on how to respond to rapidly changing COVID conditions.”

According to the Jeffco union’s statement, their own survey shows that a “vast majority of Jeffco educators” would not feel safe returning to in-person learning “without extensive measures to try to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”

The survey results, which were not provided in full, show that only 5% of respondents would feel moderately safe without enhanced measures.

The union survey also found 40% of educators reporting underlying conditions that put them at higher risk.

“Far more educators are likely to request online assignments than are available which will leave the district in the position of trying to decide whose health and safety is protected and whose is not,” the statement reads.

Cases of COVID-19 in Jeffco, like in much of the state, are trending up again.

Read more: ‘I’d like to live to teach another day:’ Denver, Jeffco teachers react to reopening schools

— Yesenia Robles

‘Nothing magical’ about 6 feet: New Colorado school guidance clears way for larger class sizes, more in-person instruction

Colorado elementary schools can open with normal class sizes under new state guidance that emphasizes local flexibility and a “layered” approach to safety that doesn’t depend on strict social distancing.

The guidance, issued Monday by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, calls on schools to use a combination of masks, home health screenings, proper ventilation, and the creation of cohorts — groups of students and adults that only interact with each other — to open safely while the coronavirus continues to circulate in the community.

While schools should try to allow space for people to spread out, including holding classes outside where feasible, they will not be required to maintain 6 feet of distance among younger children — 3 feet is acceptable. The guidance says that older students, who are more likely to transmit the disease to others and to suffer health complications themselves, should maintain more distance, with any caps on class size dependent on the size of rooms

“We know that we won’t be able to eliminate all risk, and we’re honest about that,” said Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner. “We hope with layered risk protections, we can have a safe environment.”

The article was published at Colorado school reopening updates: School districts can continue serving free meals to all students

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