Challenges abound as Littleton Public Schools works to reopen classrooms

Majority of parents want in-person learning, but district must be ready to go online too


Littleton Public Schools is planning on resuming in-person learning on schedule this fall, but there are a lot of kinks to work out amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials say situations could change quickly.

Community surveys conducted over the summer showed that the vast majority of parents prefer kids to return to school buildings with social distancing measures in place, according to a report from the Restart 20-21 Task Force, a group of dozens of district teachers, staff and parents who studied how to reopen schools.

Read the task force's report.

LPS transitioned to an all-online curriculum in March as part of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The question before school officials: How to invite students back safely, even as outbreaks of the virus continue, and case counts surge nationwide?

“No one knows how to handle opening a school of 500, 1,000, or 2,000 kids,” said LPS superintendent Brian Ewert at a June 29 school board workshop. “Everyone’s shooting from the hip trying to figure out best practices.”

Watch the school board's workshop on reopening plans.

School will look and feel different. Field trips are likely off the table. Locker use will be minimized. Classrooms and buildings will be stripped of extraneous furniture and hard-to-clean items. High school students may be required to stay on campus for lunch. Some classes may be held in gyms, auditoriums, or even tents outdoors to increase distance between students.

Read the district's reopening plan announcement.

Students will likely be grouped into cohorts or “bubbles,” seeking to minimize intermingling with other groups. But that leaves an unanswered question: What about electives, extracurriculars and sports?

“Electives are the wild card,” Ewert said. “This is a grand experiment when it comes to activities and athletics, and we don’t have answers to all that.”

Students will be required to wear face masks while riding school buses, and bus capacity will be limited to one student per seat.

Whether students will be required to wear face masks while in school hasn’t yet been determined.

“The guidance we’ve gotten from health departments, there’s a really strong belief we should mask kids,” Ewert said. “We know that’s not practical in all cases. ... Enforcing that all day with 15,000 kids, that’s really tricky.”

Ewert said while virus outbreaks in schools could require contact tracing, he’s opposed to using an app-based platform to track kids. The district is not planning on conducting temperature checks on all students, and officials said they’re depending on parents to help monitor kids for illness and keep them home if they show symptoms.

At the same time, roughly 11% of respondents to the survey said they would prefer not to return to school at all, opting instead for online learning. That’s a huge project of its own -- the district initiated an online learning program for all grades in March, and task force members said the district needs to continue providing rigorous, comprehensive and workable online programs for families who choose not to return.

The online learning platform also needs to meet the needs of a wildly diverse student body, including students with individual education plans or IEPs, English language learners, and students with differing social and behavioral needs.

It also must be ready to scale up in case individual schools -- or even the entire district -- need to close again due to outbreaks.

“I have no expectation that (all of) our schools are going to make it through the semester without having to go back to a distance learning model,” Ewert said.

The task force explored other scenarios, such as a “blended” online and in-person model that would see kids on campus for part of the week, but Ewert said that was low on the priority list.

“This model has all kinds of complexities around it,” Ewert said. “This would be if the health department said we had to reduce the number of kids by half. We can do it, but it’s complicated.”

From every angle, the looming fall semester presents unprecedented challenges, said board member Robert Reichardt.

“We’re setting up ourselves up to try to run through the fire that is COVID, and trying to figure out how far we can get before we have to bail out and go to distance learning,” Reichardt said. “Our goal is to try to get to the end of the semester.”


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