Littleton schools set reopening plan amid doubts, fears

District picks Aug. 24 date, but teachers are wary, decision matrix is tight

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Littleton Public Schools is moving ahead with plans to resume in-person classes at the end of August, though numerous teachers pleaded with the school board to reconsider.

While current plans call for kindergarten through fifth grade to resume normal five-day weeks on Aug. 24, grades 6 through 12 will begin on a “hybrid” schedule, with students in class in small groups on alternating days interspersed with online learning days, district Superintendent Brian Ewert announced at the July 30 school board meeting.

The district includes parts of Centennial and Englewood.

Watch the July 30 school board meeting.

Though the district in early July announced plans to resume normal five-day weeks on Aug. 13, district officials later moved back the start date to Aug. 24, saying they needed additional time to develop plans to return.

“We are dealing with a lack of info and guidance from health professionals, the Colorado Department of Education and the governor,” Ewert said. “We are not medical professionals. We're working hard to navigate this all on our own.”

Ewert said the district has been consulting with state and local health officials and a consortium of other superintendents to develop reopening protocols.

Though Ewert said he had hoped to receive guidance for virus outbreak protocols several weeks ago, he said the district received an email from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment outlining the protocols just minutes before the board meeting and hadn't had time to review them.

Ewert also rolled out the decision-making process that will guide whether district schools can stay open — a point system developed by state health and education officials, tallying four Arapahoe County metrics: the percent of positive COVID tests on 14-day rolling averages, daily hospitalizations, incidence rates per 100,000 population, and daily cases.

Each metric is assigned a point value, totaling 0-8. Schools would stay open as long as the county scored at least a 4.

The distict, Ewert said, is currently at 4, with a 0 rating for 14-day incidence rates. On July 30, Arapahoe County had 134.2 cases per 100,000 population, far above the ideal of less than 50. Other metrics, while currently at acceptable levels, appeared to be trending worse.

Read the district's restart planning and health guidelines.

Whether the general public can stringently adhere to public health protocols and keep infection trends low is vital for schools to reopen, Ewert said, saying that children and adults must consistently practice social distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand-washing.

“These things matter,” Ewert said. “It's not a conspiracy.”

All students from kindergarten through 12th grade will be required to wear face masks in school, said Melissa Cooper, the district's director of student support services.

District officials will consider requests for medical exemptions, Cooper said. If a student is granted a face mask exemption, their teachers will be issued face shields.

In the case of non-medical refusals, Cooper said the district will seek to work with the family to come to an agreement, but if one can't be reached, administrators would consider “whether it's appropriate for that student to continue in-person learning.”

Cooper said students will receive health screenings consisting of questionnaires about symptoms and occasional temperature checks.

Protocols for testing students and staff for COVID are not yet fully developed, Cooper said.

Board member Robert Reichardt said the continued confusion and delays around testing reflects colossal, systemic “failures up and down the line of government.”

Several other school-district departments laid out reopening plans during the July 30 meeting, including hygiene and cleaning protocols, working to meet student mental health needs and provide school security.

Read the district's guiding principles for restarting school. 

The district's all-online program, called TOPS, had about 700 enrollments as of July 30. The district has a total of nearly 15,000 students.

Numerous teachers pleaded with district officials to follow the lead of districts like Denver Public Schools, which announced plans to conduct classes entirely online at least until October.

Teachers who called into the meeting said that despite the hybrid model in upper grades, which seeks to keep class sizes to around 15, teachers themselves would be seeing total weekly classroom attendance pushing 200 students. Some also said the model is further weakened by students intermingling in clubs, sports or socially.

“The lack of information and the spread of disinformation is causing chaos,” said John Solomon, a teacher at Littleton High School. “Despite the feelings of a normal world, this threat is still there, if not greater than last spring.”

“It's not too late to reevaluate,” said Carrie Levi, a social studies teacher at Arapahoe High School. “We can make decisions now about how the virus progresses in our community.”

“No amount of instruction on face masks will alter the chaotic and predictable behavior teenagers will exude while stuck in the same building,” said James Neenan, a language arts teacher at Arapahoe High School. “Why even wait to make the call?”

“Outbreaks will force us to shut down again,” said Erin Grantham, a teacher at Franklin Elementary. “It will leave students and families scrambling.”

Millicent Ambroggio, a teacher at Littleton High School, said she is concerned for her husband, a type 1 diabetic, and her children who use inhalers who could suffer long-term respiratory damage.

William Daniel, a social studies teacher at Littleton High school, said that as long as COVID test results still take several days or more to return, and as long as contact tracing stays sporadic and rudimentary, a reliable return to face-to-face learning will be nearly impossible.

“We've been failed by the entities around us,” Daniel said.

Ewert said the board and the district's restart task force have done their best to come up with reasonable protocols.

“Based on months of work is the plan you see before you today,” he said.

The school board is scheduled to meet next on Aug. 13.

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