Littleton Public Schools eyes January classroom return

Elementary to come back first; schools are safe, superintendent says

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Littleton Public Schools is planning to bring elementary school students back to classrooms for full-week in-person classes in early January, with an eye toward bringing all students back in phases, district officials said at the Dec. 10 school board meeting.

Citing new guidance from state and national health officials calling for children to return to schools where safe, Superintendent Brian Ewert rolled out a plan that would see elementary students back in classrooms five days a week beginning Jan. 5.

Read the district's announcement.

LPS schools have been fully remote since November, after spending much of the fall semester under a “hybrid” learning model that saw most students in classrooms just two days a week. The district has not held regular in-person class schedules since March, part of efforts to control the spread of COVID-19.

If the return of elementary students goes well, Ewert said, the district will bring middle and high school students back for hybrid learning later in January.

If classroom learning models are successful, the district hopes to bring all students back for full-time in-person learning by April.

Though numerous students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 during the fall semester, Ewert said the decision to go fully remote had very little to do with in-school transmission rates, safety concerns or fear, but far more to do with the impossible logistics of continuing school with so many teachers and staff in quarantine at any given time.

“We believe schools are exponentially more safe than the rest of the community,” Ewert said. “We're not fearful of opening schools … We have controlled systems. We can tell people where to go, where to stand, where to sit. We can make it work.”

Targeted quarantines caused massive, sporadic disruption to district schools in the fall, Ewert said, sometimes forcing the closure of entire schools because of a lack of teachers. Other services, like cafeterias and bus routes, were similarly impacted.

Ewert said new guidance from the Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) will allow more targeted quarantines affecting smaller groups.

Still, he said, more quarantines will likely strain teacher capacity further, and he called on local parents who are eager to support in-person learning to volunteer to become substitute teachers.

“All you need is a high school diploma and to be able to pass a background check,” Ewert said.

Though the district will continue to track local virus transmission and infection data, Ewert said officials won't rely as heavily on community data for decision-making as was laid out over the summer.

School board president Jack Reutzel said he was comfortable backing off using community data to decide whether schools should stay open.

“We have the ability to change our minds when better data becomes available,” Reutzel said, adding that tracking metrics were set up over the summer before anyone knew what a return to classrooms would do to transmission rates. “We didn't have the ability to understand what was going to happen in our schools, because we hadn't started our schools yet.”

Amanda Crosby, who heads the district's teachers' union, said a survey she conducted of teachers showed many supported a return to classrooms, though she said she hoped the plan to return in January could be reevaluated if virus transmission and hospitalization rates worsen.

“LPS can make plans, but they must be contingent on virus spread that makes it realistic,” she said. “Students need predictability and a lack of disruptions in their learning.”

Crosby also urged the community to adhere to public health guidance to keep transmission rates low, like wearing face masks in public and avoiding gatherings.

Several parents who called into the meeting were adamant that they felt schools should reopen for full-time in-person learning immediately, especially in light of district data presented at the meeting showing that failing grade rates at the high school level are spiking.

“I'm very worried about our teenagers,” said a parent of two students. “School is not that hard right now. If kids are failing, it's because they're doing nothing, because they're depressed, lonely and isolated. They need to be in the building. Schools are safe.”

Another parent of a high school student said she was exasperated with remote and hybrid learning.

“Are we purely at the mercy of Tri-County Health?” she said. “I can only wonder if the teachers' union leads these decisions. The bottom line is, my son needs to be back in person. The mental health of our young people is in jeopardy.”

Board member Robert Reichardt, who recently recovered from a case of COVID-19, pushed back against some of the criticism.

“There's an insinuation that schools aren't open because we're not being leaders or we're beholden to the teachers' union,” Reichardt said. “But the reason is there's a pandemic. A highly contagious pandemic that has infected one out of every 20 of our neighbors. It killed five people in our county last week. It's killing friends, neighbors, parents and grandparents. That's the problem.”

Board member Carrie Warren-Gully, who will leave the board in January to take on a new role as an Arapahoe County Commissioner, said it's up to the community to make sure schools and the economy can reopen safely.

“It's a sacrifice we all have to make collectively,” Warren-Gully said. “That's something we all have to think about in this time of year when our instinct is to do something different.”

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