Littleton Public Schools struggling with growing quarantines

Hundreds sent home at multiple schools; superintendent wants regulations relaxed


Littleton Public Schools continues to endure widespread quarantines across the district as students and staff sporadically test positive for COVID-19, leaving students, parents and teachers frustrated and overwhelmed.

See the school district's COVID updates page

Between Aug. 24, when in-person learning resumed, and Sept. 25, the district saw 19 quarantines, spurred by 19 positive cases. A cumulative total of 768 students and 103 staff at seven schools had been sent home for two-week quarantines so far as of Sept. 25, according to district data.

Because none of the cases have been shown to have been transmitted within schools, none qualify as an outbreak as defined by the Tri-County Health Department, said district superintendent Brian Ewert.

The sporadic partial quarantines have left teachers reeling, said Amanda Crosby, the head of the district's teachers union.

“There just aren't enough teachers or enough substitutes,” Crosby said. “Staff is absolutely exhausted.”

Because the district adopted a “hybrid” model — a model that sees kids in classrooms just two days a week, spending the rest of the week online — teachers are on the hook to create lessons for the classroom and for students at home in quarantine, Crosby said.

“It's getting very difficult to do this job,” said John Solomon, a teacher at Littleton High School who called into the Board of Education's Sept. 24 meeting.

“There's no relief in sight,” Solomon said. “We're all feeling quite burned out.”

A shortage of substitutes prompted the district to close Heritage High School to in-person learning completely in early September, after about a third of the school's teaching staff were quarantined.

The shutdowns and measures against the virus have left parents exasperated, with some calling for a return to full-time in-person learning.

One parent of a ninth-grade student under a quarantine who called in to the Sept. 24 meeting said his son is struggling in his advanced calculus and physics classes, which translate poorly online.

“I understand the desire to keep children safe, but fear seems to be the dominant factor,” the parent said. “Parents and teachers are doing the best they can, but this is a poor facsimile … remove the shackles from our education system, and bring back the full-time experience.”

Another parent of a high school student who called into the meeting said she feared ongoing quarantines and isolation would wreak havoc on youth mental health.

“We're laying the groundwork for social and emotional issues to come,” the parent said. “Connectedness between individuals can be protective and prevent suicidal thoughts and behaviors … these are words to heed in times of unnecessary and very exaggerated quarantines.”

Ewert, the superintendent, said he feels caught between a rock and a hard place.

“Yes, the quarantines are somewhat overreaching,” Ewert said, saying the district is beholden to guidance from the Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“When we have one case, in effect everyone who was in a classroom with that person goes on quarantine,” he said. “That's an incredible amount of people. We'd like to tighten that up to everyone within six feet for more than 15 minutes, but the health departments aren't ready to go there.”

Ewert said his frustration is compounded because so far none of the students or staff who have been quarantined have come down with symptoms or cases themselves.

“It does not seem to be spreading at school,” Ewert said. “It appears our face mask and distancing efforts are working.”

Ewert said he was further frustrated in mid-September when Gov. Jared Polis announced many school sports, including football, could restart, which he said seemed to undermine the strict measures the district has taken to keep students separated.

“I really don't see how that's helpful in the face of the tight parameters the health department has us under,” he said. “If COVID is what the experts say it is, football sure sounds like a super-spreader situation to me. I hope I'm wrong.”

There's another wrinkle: The district's fully-online alternative to in-person learning, called TOPS, is beginning to shrink in enrollment as students trickle back into classrooms.

At its highest, TOPS had 1,740 students in all grades, Ewert said, but that number has since declined to just over 1,600.

Some parents said they overestimated the amount of support they would get online, Ewert said, though he noted that surveys found more than half of parents who responded said they were satisfied with the program.

The problem? The more students return to the classroom, the more difficult it becomes to maintain social distancing protocols.

“There's simply no way I can have 2,000 at Arapahoe (High School) and keep them six feet apart,” Ewert said.

Ewert said the current regulations may soon force more schools to close to in-person learning.

“We just don't have the staff coverage to keep this up,” Ewert said. “People don't realize the amount of time and energy we're spending trying to keep schools open.”


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