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Denver Public Schools reconsiders its strategy for reopening schools in the fall

Denver Public Schools
Posted at 8:49 PM, Jul 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-16 01:14:51-04

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DENVER -- Denver Public Schools is adjusting its plans when it comes to reopening safely in the fall. The district is now considering a move to start classes one week later on August 24 and using a phased-in approach instead of having all students return at once.

The reason for the change is two-fold; first, about one-third of the buildings don’t have air conditioning and August can be hot, so the district is hoping delaying the start time will help staff and students since breathing while wearing masks is difficult enough without the heat.

Second, the additional week will give teachers and staff time to prepare for their students to return.

Denver Public Schools

During an uncertain time, the district says it is trying to remain flexible to deal with any questions or potential issues that come up.

Along with the delay, it is considering a phased-in approach, “so that kids have time in a smaller group to learn the protocols, work through that and see how things are going and adjust,” said Mark Ferrandino, the deputy superintendent of operations for DPS.

The district is also working on acquiring enough personal protective equipment for faculty and students and negotiating with companies to get regular testing capabilities.

“On PPE, our team has been working hard to purchase. We have a warehouse now with a significant number of masks for both staff and students,” Ferrandino said.

The district is hosting meetings with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association in coming days and is hoping to have a final decision on how schools will safely reopen by early next week.

However, it is trying to remain flexible in case things change and COVID-19 cases go up over the next few weeks.

“The only constant is change right now and we will continue to monitor what’s going on and listen to the local health officials,” Ferrandino said. “There is risk, but our job is based on the best science, in the best health officials, to mitigate that risk to get kids at the school in a safe environment.”

Denver Teachers Association

In May and June, DPS met with DCTA to formally discuss reopening in the fall and conversations have been happening ever since. Still, there is a lot of uncertainty from teachers.

“The teachers that I have spoken to and the SSP’s are very concerned; they’re concerned not just for their students and the learning conditions for their students, but they’re also concerned for their own safety,” said Rob Gould, the Vice President of DCTA.

The union is happy that the district decided to delay reopening for a week, but Gould wonders if even that is too soon to bring everyone back.

There are still a lot of questions teachers have over exactly how returning to school in the fall will work, like the quarantine practices, whether there will be enough substitutes to fill in if teachers get sick, whether students will realistically be able to be kept six feet apart, how schedules are being worked out, whether there are enough PPE’s for everyone and more.

“Will we have the availability of testing so that if there is an outbreak we can contain it quickly? If we don’t have the right testing and if we don’t have those answers quickly in this thing could really get out-of-control,” Gould said.

Teachers are also waiting to see how they can apply to work from home. For now, Gould says they have to be able to provide a doctor’s note saying they are in a high-risk category and need certain accommodations made for them.

He understands that the district isn’t going to be able to make everything 100% safe and that DPS is trying its best to accommodate everyone, he just wants to make sure the safety of staff and students is priority.

“If we’re going back then we really just need to have a fairly good confidence that this is the right way to go in, the safest way we can possibly make it,” Gould said.

DPS parent petition

While the district and teacher’s union discuss reopening in the fall, one DPS parent has started a petition on to demand more of a stake-holding process for parents to participate.

Liz Stalnaker has two elementary school students attending Denver schools and has been talking with other parents about whether she should send her kids back to school or have them do remote learning.

In talking with them, Stalnaker realized a lot of other parents had the same fears and questions she did, so she started the petition.

Within 24 hours, the petition has gotten more than 2,500 signatures.

“So, it’s clearly struck a nerve,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of stress and I think that if nothing else giving folks that outlet and that outlet that can be directed at the people that need to be hearing this.”

The district has sent out the two surveys to parents, but Stalnaker says the surveys were very different from one another and parents were not offered an explanation of what changed or why the changes were made.

The first survey talked about a hybrid model while the second asked parents whether they would prefer 100% in-person or 100% remote learning.

She wants parents to be able to sound off in a town hall or school board meeting.

“We want to have their back and making sure that we’re asking at the state and federal levels that budgets are supported to meet these needs,” she said. “But what we’re asking DPS is to have our backs and have the teachers backs and have the students' back in making decisions that prioritize the health and safety of all of our students.”

Finally, she is concerned that the needs of families are not being considered in some of the more economically disadvantaged areas where both parents need to work and cannot stay home with the kids for remote learning.

“In some ways what I think the planning that DPS is doing is banking on a certain percentage of parents electing to do (remote learning) and to put their individual resources towards supporting their own families, but that doesn’t work in schools in our underserved neighborhoods,” Stalnaker said.

The petition calls for a delayed opening until the district has gone 14 days without new COVID-19 cases, a stakeholder process for reopening, more consideration of racial inequities and health/ economic disparities in schools and among families, more safety protocols to be put in place and more transparency.

An uncertain future

Denver Public Schools says it is continuing to work with public health experts to try to find the best way to bring students back to class.

There are still a lot of details to work out before school resumes in the fall and no shortage of opinions on how to reopen safely.

For now, the district is asking for flexibility, patience and an understanding that when classes do resume, they will be very different than before.