Douglas County students return to school

They come in for orientation as hybrid learning gets underway

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Douglas County students are back in district schools.

The Douglas County School District brought students back to class 20% at a time the week of Aug. 17, meaning students would have one day of school that week, as they underwent orientation for a starkly different school year than those of pre-pandemic times.

The third-largest school district in Colorado with 68,000 students — and Douglas County’s largest employer, with 8,300 people on the district’s payroll — DCSD opted for a “hybrid” learning model during the on-going COVID-19 health crisis.

Students enrolled in hybrid learning will attend two days in-person and three days online at home each week.

Several students who were first to return on Aug. 17 said they are glad to be back with friends and teachers and that they enjoy smaller class sizes. But they also miss friends placed in a different cohort and are uneasy with some changes in place this year.

Students have been divided into two groups — called cohorts — cutting typical class sizes in half for the 2020-21 school year. The cohorts will alternate in-person and online learning days.

Keirra Griffith, 10, who is in fifth grade at Soaring Hawk Elementary School in Castle Rock, said she spent her first day talking with teachers, playing games and learning about changes to this year.

Teachers told students they would wipe down tables and chairs between classes. Students have to wear a mask inside but not outside. At lunch Keirra ate at tables with three students seated on each side and six at each table maximum.

“I wanted to go back but I wasn’t worried if it wasn’t able to, because I didn’t mind doing it online,” she said.

Keirra’s parents, Sean and Kelley Griffith, said that like many families, they were nervous about the return of students, but also excited for their children to have some normalcy. And as two working parents, full online learning is not feasible for their family, Kelley said.

This district offered 100% online learning to families an as alternative to hybrid learning.

Sean checks virus data daily, he said. He expects an outbreak will be inevitable with students back in schools. It’s up to parents, the Griffiths said, to be responsible and keep sick children home.

Kelley said they are satisfied with precautions put in place by the district and are settling in to a new normal amid COVID-19.

“I think to a degree we have to learn to live with it,” she said.

Their main hope is that students have more structure in online learning than they did during the emergency switch to remote learning in the spring.

At Trailblazer Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, some students said they did not like having to wear masks while indoors.

“I can’t understand anyone,” said fifth-grader Anya Fournier, 10.

Anya’s mom, Aimee Fournier, made sure her children were ready for each day by packing their backpacks with extra masks and hand sanitizer. In their lunchboxes, she put more hand sanitizer and a note: “Please wash your hands before you eat.”

Her children are somewhat anxious about wearing masks and about the chance of getting sick, she said.

“The small class size is exciting,” Fournier said. “I don’t fully understand (the at-home portion) yet. I don’t know if it’s online or assignments at home that support what they’re learning.”

Jenny Guenther, whose children Alex and Brady attend Cougar Run Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, echoed Fournier. The one piece about hybrid schooling she still needs more answers about is how online learning days will work, she said.

Still, she feels Cougar Run has gone “above and beyond” communicating with families.

Teachers sent families a video tour of the classrooms the week before orientation to give parents and families a look at school, which she said calmed her children’s nerves.

Her 11-year-old daughter Alex, a sixth-grader at Cougar Run, was also impressed. She feels her teachers are well organized.

“The videos that my teacher made were so nice because they showed us what it would look like,” Alex said.

Brady is also excited to be back. He loves his small class and wishes he could go to school with them every day. School is “kind of weird” this year, he said, and his teachers braced him for many changes.

“We’re going to be doing some unusual stuff, like we can’t really do regular school work, like we can’t have partners,” he said. “Some of it’s OK, some of it’s really not.”

Reporters Elliott Wenzler and Nick Puckett contributed to this story.

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