Littleton Public Schools to return to classrooms full-time March 15

Improving COVID rates, vaccination rollout enable move, though some still skeptical

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Littleton Public Schools is slated to bring all middle and high school students back for full-time, in-person classroom learning starting March 15, more than a month ahead of schedule.

“We've heard from students, parents and staff that a return to a more normal in-person school experience every day would be the very best thing we could do for our community's children,” reads a letter from the district to parents in part.

Read the district's letter to parents.

Elementary school students have been full-time in-person since the spring semester began in January. Middle and high school students have been on a hybrid schedule, with just two days a week in the classroom and the rest online. District officials originally planned to bring the upper grades back in-person in late April.

The move is possible thanks to improving COVID numbers and vaccination rates, district officials say.

The district will be part of a wave of metro-area public school districts bringing students back to classrooms full-time in mid-March, along with Jefferson County, Douglas County, Adams 12 and several in northern Colorado.

At a Feb. 25 school board meeting, Superintendent Brian Ewert said the past year has brought a swirl of passionate opinions from all sides on how to handle COVID restrictions, and ultimately he felt compelled to make a judgment call.

“I place a high value on collaboration, but this full return to school was not a collaborative decision,” he said. “As the superintendent, I made this decision and I stand by my decision… Ultimately, I will be held accountable for my decision.”

Watch the Feb. 25 school board meeting.

Ewert said students, their parents and the community have a pressing need to return to something resembling normal.

“(Students) need each other,” he said. “They need to come back to school full-time not just for their learning but also for their social and emotional well-being.”

Read Ewert's full statement.

Just under half of the district's staff had received at least one vaccine dose as of Feb. 25, Ewert said, with a little more than 10% having received both doses, numbers he said he expected to climb rapidly in coming weeks.

Ewert acknowledged that physical distancing between students will get much more difficult once all students are back in classrooms, with the six feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control likely impossible. Still, he expressed confidence that face coverings, symptom screenings and hygiene protocols would make up the difference.

Some parents and students were left dismayed by the decision, saying they chose hybrid learning over all-online learning in the fall based on the idea that district officials would hold out longer.

“You're changing that in the middle of the year,” one parent said to the school board, saying he was worried about asymptomatic spread in schools and adding it was too late in the semester to transfer to TOPS, the district's all-online alternative. “There's no guidance for parents who don't want to go back full-time.”

An Arapahoe High School senior who said she is a type 1 diabetic and therefore at higher risk said she doesn't feel comfortable returning to packed classrooms, and her honors classes aren't offered in the TOPS program.

“I'm about to graduate high school, and right now I have to choose between my education and my safety,” she said. “I'm pleading for a better option for the handful of us for whom in-person is not an option.”

Members of the Littleton Education Association (LEA), the district's teachers union, said they felt left out of the decision making process. The union's leadership board read a memorandum with a list of concerns and requests for district officials.

Read the union's memorandum.

Requests included providing increased mental health supports for students left feeling anxious and vulnerable by the transition, and providing well-fitting high-quality personal protective equipment to students and staff on request by the first day back.

The memorandum also called for district officials to take “a public stand” at the state level against standardized testing this spring, and if it is not canceled, to provide families specific instructions for how to opt out, and to not factor standardized test results into teacher evaluations for this school year.

The memorandum also cites concerns about the effect of repeated quarantines on student learning, saying upper grades have seen disproportionate numbers of quarantines even while in school fewer days this semester.

The district's COVID communications page shows the district has announced limited quarantines nearly every day since the semester began.

Speaking to Colorado Community Media after the meeting, Ewert said district staff will do their best to make the transition as smooth as possible, but said there is no way to make everyone happy.

“At this point, those people who were so vocal about us returning to classrooms became pretty quiet, because we're going back,” Ewert said. “There's no right or wrong here. No correct opinion. We're working in unprecedented times. There's no perfect time to return.”

Ewert said district staff will work with students who are anxious about the return and provide high-quality KN-95 face masks when needed, and is open to discussing synchronous online learning for students who must remain homebound.

“I do believe we'll be able to find solutions and accommodations,” he said. “But we have to get kids back in schools. We just have to.”

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