Christina Pease planned to start a part-time job when her oldest child, Caleb, began kindergarten at South Ridge Elementary School in Castle Rock this fall. She wanted to contribute to her family's income after he made the transition.
But as school drew closer, anxiety built up in her 6-year-old son. A new school. New teachers. No friends he knew. The list of stressors did not stop with the nervousness he felt toward starting kindergarten. COVID-19 hurled more unknowns into the mix.
School would look far from normal with pandemic precautions in place, Pease said. She expected that to make things harder for him.
Then the Douglas County School District announced on July 25 it would reopen schools on a “hybrid model,” with children learning in class two days a week and at home online three days a week.
The new job would not pay enough to support child care. She and her husband, Josh, do not have family in the area to help. Most of their friends were facing the same hurdles, she said.
Pease did not know how to make hybrid work.
Her family had planned to send Caleb to whatever amount of in-person school was possible. But with his mounting anxiety, his young age, and a lack of child care, they changed course.
“We decided to home school,” she said. “We'll home school and we'll try again next year.”
The Pease family is one of thousands in Douglas County deciding how to school their children in the age of COVID-19.
For some, the district's previous plan of sending children back to classrooms 100% of the time was unthinkable in a pandemic. For others full in-person learning is the only way they know how to make life work.
Under the district's hybrid learning model, students will be divided into two groups, also called cohorts. The groups will alternate attending school in-person and at home, Monday through Thursday. Both will attend school online on Fridays.
This will allow schools to have no more than 50% of students in the building at once, according to the district.
By Aug. 4, the district had nearly finalized placing students into cohorts, Assistant Superintendent Ted Knight said.
The district was able to keep most students from the same household in the same cohort, he said, and principals were expected to send families' their cohort assignments that week.
During the first week of school, which begins Aug. 17, only 20% of students will attend school each day to undergo orientation. That means students will have one day of in-person instruction that week.
On Aug. 24, all pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students who chose hybrid learning will have their first full week of school.
The district is also offering 100% “e-learning,” or online schooling, for students unable or uncomfortable attending school in-person.
Online students will also begin their first full day of school on Aug. 24 and will be allowed to attend an orientation day in-person the week of Aug. 17 if they choose.
Online learning will be a mix of prerecorded sessions and live sessions with educators. The e-learning curriculum will lean heavily on live sessions, according to information released by the district, where teachers and students are logged in at the same time.
Families had until Aug. 3 to select either online or hybrid learning for the semester. A spokeswoman said the district was still collecting enrollment data and that a final breakdown was not yet available. Students can change this selection if needed but not until the end of the first semester.
In a July 27 letter to the community, Tucker said the district believes a hybrid model was “the next best thing” if DCSD could not safely bring students back to 100% in-person learning.
“We recognize that students are best served by attending school in person, surrounded by their peers and guided by our talented teachers and support staff,” Tucker said.
Hybrid learning will make it easier to implement social distancing and safety precautions, he wrote.
Tucker was not available for comment for this story.
Among health and safety precautions, the district is now requiring everyone in its buildings to wear a face covering, unless they have a medical condition or disability making masks impossible.
The decision to switch from full in-person instruction to a hybrid model came during an hours-long special meeting on July 25.
School board directors heard directly from a panel of school principals during their meeting. The administrators were clear, maintaining all COVID-19 precautions laid out by the district would be difficult if schools returned to full, in-person learning.
“It is much more do-able with a hybrid model,” Northridge Elementary Principal Katie Lynch said.
Castle Rock Middle School Principal John Veit told directors he “would have a shot at social distancing my lunchroom” with hybrid learning.
In addition to spacing students out at lunch and restricting capacity, the district is ordering tents for students to eat in outside to help schools socially distance at lunch.
There were still unanswered questions and the hybrid system would still have its challenges, principals said at the meeting.
Knight, the assistant superintendent, said on July 25 that deciding what schedule cohorts will follow was one of the most “spirited debates” among staff.
Chaparral High School Principal Greg Gotchey said some high school principals preferred a schedule with Cohort A attending school in-person for two days and then online for two days, with Wednesday as an e-learning day. Cohort B would follow a reverse schedule.
That could allow for a block schedule and minimize the number of students a teacher came into contact with, he said.
Wildcat Mountain Elementary Principal Molly Milley advocated for alternating days. That would allow teachers to gather feedback from students more consistently and intervene sooner if a student had misunderstood a lesson, she said.
More regular in-person contact with teachers would be critical for the district's youngest learners, she said.
“I would ask for some grace in leaning toward our elementary students and their needs,” she said.
Tucker said the schedule needed to be the same at all grade levels.
'Trying to move forward'
Principals also said they will need their full staff, if not additional staff, to make a hybrid model work with social distancing in place.
The local teachers union, Douglas County Federation, has advocated for a block schedule at high schools, which President Kallie Leyba said will limit teachers' contact with students, minimize how often classrooms need to be cleaned and scale down the number of students passing one another in hallways.
Maria Volker is a union member and Highlands Ranch High School teacher. An educator since 1989, who spent roughly 20 years teaching with DCSD, Volker said she is scared to return to school.
Volker called the previous plan to return to full in-person learning “horrific” and felt relieved by the switch to hybrid learning.
She's seen firsthand how the virus can take lives — her brother-in-law died in April from COVID-19, she said.
Had schools fully reopened, the 60-year-old would have felt forced to return out of a need for work, and would have done so under immense stress, she said. She did not request an online teaching assignment to reserve those spots for employees at greater risk for the virus, she said.
“I was very appreciative that they listened to all sides and made a decision,” Volker said. “It's a middle-of-the-road decision. It's a compromise. But at least we are trying to move forward.”
Volker said she did not know how she would balance the in-person and online learning under the hybrid model.
“We've never done this before,” she said. “I think we just have to see how it goes. I don't think we are going to know the answers until we actually start it.”
She also worries about students carrying the virus into schools despite precautions. Volker is going to hang a clear shower curtain around her desk because the district is not providing plexiglass, she said.
“The kids, they are going to crack up when they see the shower curtain, but that's OK,” she said.
The district does have a number of personal protective equipment options available for staff, including masks available to any student or staff member who needs one. Volker will wear a mask and a face shield, she said.
“We are dealing with people's lives. It's really not a joke. These are people's lives at risk. You've got to do your part,” she said.
Weighing the options
Kate Welsh, a Highlands Ranch mother of two district students, said on Aug. 31 her family remained undecided between hybrid and online learning. She needed more answers about her son's schooling, she said, but she was leaning toward 100% e-learning.
Welsh's 8-year-old son Henry is on the autism spectrum and has an individualized education plan, she said. The sudden transition to remote learning in the spring was “really rough for him.”
He needs routine, she said, and Henry struggled when she couldn't tell him when or if he would return to school during his spring semester. With online learning this fall, he could at least know what's ahead, she said.
“We can set those expectations upfront, that no, your classroom is our dining room. We got you a cool green case for your Chromebook and we'll figure this out,” she said.
She also suspects the district will switch to full online learning at some point in the school year, and so Henry would be better prepared for that transition, she said.
“Maybe I'm hedging my bets the wrong way, but looking at the numbers, I don't think I am,” she said.
Welsh's 5-year-old daughter Molly was eager to start kindergarten.
“So excited to be a big kid and to go to big kid school and to get to carry her backpack and buy lunch, all of those things. She was so excited,” Welsh said.
Hybrid might have given her “some of the traditional kindergarten experience,” which made that model appealing as well, she said.
“I think hybrid is a great alternative to five days a week. That seemed entirely too risky to our teachers, our staff, all of our students, to me,” she said. “We in no way even considered going back full time, five days a week.”
Still, she felt as though she would need a crystal ball before truly being comfortable selecting a hybrid model, and some idea of when a COVID-19 vaccine would become available.
The family ended up choosing the e-learning option, she said.
“I would love nothing more than for my kids to be in their classrooms but the minimal amount of transitions between learning environments is essential for my kids,” she said by text message on Aug. 6. “Ultimately, the certainty of 100% virtual won out. We'll reevaluate at the close of the semester.”
Josh Cervantes and his wife, both health care workers in Douglas County hospitals, empathize with community members' fears about returning to school, Cervantes said. They still support a full return to in-person learning.
“I completely, fully understand. Everybody has their right to their own opinion. We certainly are aware that children are less likely to get the virus, but we also are aware that they can carry it,” he said.
The Castle Rock family was thrilled to hear Douglas County planned to return with full in-person learning, then shocked by the switch to the hybrid model, he said.
When the district switched to remote learning in the spring, Cervantes said he received tearful calls from his then-fifth-grade student struggling with schoolwork.
Cervantes is a systems analyst at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree and his wife is a medical assistant at Castle Rock Adventist hospital. Both being essential workers, neither could stay home to help their children with remote learning.
Cervantes' then-seventh-grade son helped his younger brother with assignments, he said, but that then set him behind in schoolwork. Cervantes would come home from work and spend hours helping his oldest catch up.
“We'd be up until 10 o'clock every time just trying to make sure that all the assignments were on time,” he said. “Hats off to my son for stepping up and taking care of his little brother in our absence.”
The family is facing significant challenges with the hybrid learning model, he said.
Cervantes and his wife plan to rearrange their work schedules, taking turns working four, 10-hours shifts a week and spending their off days to help the children with school.
They still don't know how to manage transportation. Unlike last year, neither of their children will be able to ride the bus when they attend Mesa Middle School this year, he said.
The Cervantes family wears masks. They socially distance. They practice good hygiene and frequent hand washing, he said, and they want their kids back in school.
“Knowing that we are doing our best, we would hope that the rest of the community would do their best and create a safe environment for the kids, for the sake of their education,” he said.
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