Eliot Ewy was getting pretty tired of online school.
After Littleton Public Schools returned to all-online instruction in November, the 7-year-old first-grader at Centennial Elementary spent the tail end of fall semester staring at a laptop on school days. The district had begun the fall semester on hybrid schedules for middle and high school students — meaning they were only in classrooms two days a week, with the other three online — and with normal five-day weeks for elementary students.
Nov. 12: Littleton Public Schools switches to remote learning in face of climbing COVID numbers
Sharing a house with two parents working from home, two older brothers also in online school, and five pets felt stifling. Gym class over Zoom, consisting of tossing balled-up socks around the room, was pretty boring.
In the afternoons, Ewy would wander the neighborhood, looking for someone to play with. There weren't many.
“After the COVID, can we have a party with everyone we know?” she would ask her parents. “After the COVID, can we have a sleepover that lasts for two weeks?”
When she returned to Ms. Taft’s classroom on Jan. 5, joining more than 5,000 LPS elementary school students returning for full-day in-person learning five days a week for the first time since November, she was thrilled.
“I missed seeing my friends and the teacher actually alive,” Ewy said. “Online school was terrible. I do miss being in pajamas all day, though.”
The transition still presents some challenges. She's glad to be back in gym class, though running while wearing a face mask makes it hard to breathe. Sometimes she forgets to sit on the assigned spots far from her friends in the cafeteria.
“Corona is still here and I have to be careful,” she said. “But it feels so good to be back. Actually, it feels great.”
As classes resume, so do quarantines
As elementary classrooms across the district fill back up, children, parents and teachers say they're excited to resume not just academic instruction but the work of socializing the next generation.
Current plans call for middle and high school students to come back for hybrid learning — that's three days a week online and two days in classrooms — on a phased-in schedule in coming weeks.
Read the district's plans for a return to classrooms
But warning signs loom. Just a week into the semester, positive cases among staff and students were triggering more quarantines of exposed staff and students, as they did before schools shut down last fall.
Jan. 8: two staff and 22 students at East Elementary quarantined. Jan. 11: two staff and 20 students at Field Elementary. Jan. 14: three staff and 25 students at Field, again. Later the same day: three staff and 116 students at Franklin Elementary.
“It doesn't bode well,” said Superintendent Brian Ewert. “If we keep seeing a quarantine a day, this will get pretty tricky. We just don't have the substitute teachers to cover this. There will be a point the system collapses. If we have to close schools again, we will, but we're not there yet. Any day kids are in schools is a good day.”
The district's shutdown last fall was driven not by a fear of virus spread within schools, Ewert said, but an inability to keep classrooms properly staffed in the face of ever-growing quarantine lists.
Sept. 28: Littleton Public Schools struggling with growing quarantines
Whether those lists grow unmanageable again will depend on a couple factors, Ewert said.
First, whether Tri-County Health Department continues to allow so-called "surgical" quarantines — selecting students and staff who have had prolonged, close exposure to an infected person, rather than broader lists of everyone who shared a room with them as was the case early in the fall semester.
Oct. 5: Colorado loosens school quarantine guidelines for some areas
Second, whether the community at large can remain committed to mitigation techniques like social distancing and face masks until COVID is under better control.
“We continue to assert that schools are safe,” Ewert said. “But that's only if we keep them safe. Elementary schools are smaller, and the kids are easier to keep in cohorts. If we crammed 2,000 kids back in Arapahoe High School, it would be far harder to control spread.”
Just under 600 elementary school students remain in TOPS, an all-online alternative to in-person learning, according to district figures.
Shot in the dark
Meanwhile, administrators and teachers are frustrated at an 11th-hour reshuffling of the state's COVID vaccine priority list that pushed teachers farther down the line.
After initially announcing teachers would be in the earlier rounds of vaccinations, Gov. Jared Polis announced in the final days of 2020 they would be pushed back behind everyone age 70 and older.
“I get the need to vaccinate the elderly, because that's where most of the deaths are coming from, but I really don't understand why we can't be taking care of them and teachers at the same time,” said LPS school board President Jack Reutzel. “If the point is to protect the most vulnerable and get the economy going again, that can't happen until we can get kids back in school and keep them there. That means vaccinating teachers.”
The vaccination schedule was not a significant factor in the decision to reopen schools, Reutzel said.
“We thought the vaccine was coming at some point, but we didn't know when,” he said. “But we have a huge need to get kids back in schools. They collaborate and communicate better. Their mental health is better. I'm confident it was the right decision.”
Time will tell whether the district can stick to the schedule to bring the upper grades back. As of press time, middle school students were scheduled to return to hybrid learning in mid-January, with high schoolers following in late January. A tentative return to full-week, full-day instruction for all students is planned for April.
“We're at a tipping point already,” Reutzel said. “We have enough substitutes for now, but what about when we bring back the higher grades?”
There are improvements over last fall. The district recently opened a COVID testing site adjacent to Littleton High School, operated by COVID Check Colorado, which is available at no charge to teachers, students, and the community at large. District officials are rolling out district-wide saliva tests that can provide results in 8-10 hours.
'The younger they are, the worse it is'
Teachers are generally pleased with the decision to return to classrooms, said Amanda Crosby, head of the teachers' union.
“I'm hearing positive things,” she said. “Teachers are pretty frustrated with the governor on the vaccines thing, but we really appreciate everything the district has done to get us rolling.”
Some teachers, including those who work closely with students with special needs, have been able to get vaccinated, she said.
Returning to in-person learning is an important step for student success, she said, and critical for the youngest learners.
“As bad as we all want to be back in-person, the younger kids need prioritizing,” she said. “At sixth grade and up, they can take more responsibility for their own learning. Kindergartners and first-graders can't do it on their own. It's not good for any kid to be online all day, but the younger they are, the worse it is.”
'They need to speak up'
In-person learning means the world to the littlest learners, said Joan Bast, a kindergarten teacher at Sandburg Elementary.
“Online learning was pretty hard on them,” Bast said. “They need to speak up, and they have a tough time with that on a screen.”
Online school was particularly tough on parents and families, Bast said.
“Kindergartners are not independent,” she said. “Posting assignments for them means it's an assignment for their parents, many of whom are trying to do their own jobs. For my kids in day cares, what they could do on their end was dependent on when their caregivers could get to them.”
Bast said she is keenly aware that the district may have to return to online learning, or that her students may end up back in quarantine. But for now, she's enjoying the time she has with them.
“I've always loved my job, but this year brought a new appreciation,” she said. “The world of grown-ups is so hard right now, but these kids are so innocent and sweet and joyful and just glad to be with their friends. Kids are the best.”
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