Littleton Public Schools announced it would push back the beginning of the fall semester from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24 to give district staff more time to make sweeping preparations for in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state and local health departments have still not issued finalized guidelines for how to handle outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in schools, according to a district news release, and district officials say they’ll need time to establish internal protocols for virus testing, contact tracing, quarantines and shifts to online learning for schools with outbreaks.
District officials also say they need more time to hire and train teachers for online learning platforms offered to families who choose not to return to school, ready classrooms for physical distancing and hygiene, prepare all faculty in case they need to switch to online learning entirely, and to give parents time to weigh their options.
“We’re working in this weird, unprecedented time, and we’re making decisions on the fly,” said district superintendent Brian Ewert. “Nobody is happy about it.”
The district also announced wide-ranging protocols to facilitate a return to classrooms: all students from kindergarten through 12th grade will be required to wear face masks while at school. Students are expected to bring their own masks.
Classrooms will be emptied of extra materials and furnishings. Student movement will be organized to limit exposure. Drinking fountains will be off-limits, with students expected to bring their own water bottles and given chances to refill them throughout the day. Parents and visitors will not be allowed into schools, though schools will develop protocols for parents to drop off items.
Because of tight limitations on bus ridership, the district said it will need “significantly more parents to transport their students to and from school.”
‘The best choice for my family’
Despite the challenges posed by virus mitigation efforts, some parents say they’re looking forward to a return to in-person learning.
“It’s absolutely the best choice for my family,” said Angela Christensen, whose twin boys will be freshmen at Heritage High School this fall. Christensen also served on the district’s Restart Task Force, which helped develop in-person learning scenarios, and will serve as the vice president of the Heritage parent-teacher organization this fall.
“Seeing things up-close through the task force, I’m confident that the district has looked at every option and is doing everything it can to make this safe,” Christensen said. “If we can all work together and be kind, and have some grace, this can work. If we don’t, it will compound everything we’re facing.”
Not everyone has been so supportive. Ewert, the superintendent, said he and the school board have received a flurry of angry emails since announcing that schools would open in the fall.
“People are calling us child killers,” Ewert said. “Some have said we’re no better than the Columbine killers. Are you serious? We’ve devoted our careers and our lives to kids. We have no crystal ball on how to do this perfectly.”
Ewert said the district pushed ahead with plans to open schools to in-person learning -- as have many metro-area districts -- after months of consultation with Tri-County Health, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, Children’s Hospital and others.
The district is also rolling out a comprehensive online learning platform called the Temporary Online Program for Students, or TOPS, for students whose families do not feel comfortable sending them back to schools.
TOPS will serve students in every grade level, with a goal of being more robust and cohesive than the rushed transition to all-online learning the district underwent in March as schools closed.
Teachers learned a lot from months of online learning in the spring, said Amanda Crosby, a teacher at Arapahoe High School and the president of the Littleton Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union.
“It was a mixed bag for students,” Crosby said. “Some kids thrived because the social pressures of school were gone, but others wound up feeling really disconnected.”
A bigger impact, Crosby said, was the exacerbation of socioeconomic differences between students. Some had parents who could stay home to keep them on track, while others stayed home alone while parents went to work at essential jobs.
Though the district is hiring and training staff specifically for TOPS, with the expectation that only a portion of the student body will choose it, Ewert said it’s entirely possible that schools or the whole district may wind up shut down to in-person learning again, forcing a return to full-scale online learning.
“We’re spending a significant amount of time training all of our teachers for that,” Ewert said.
‘We don’t know what we’re walking into’
Meanwhile, teachers are facing dilemmas of their own.
“We don’t really know how much the virus has spread, and we don’t really know what we’re walking into,” Crosby said. “Every type of staff member is trying to make a decision about whether to come back.”
Several teachers have already chosen to resign or take early retirement, Crosby said, though she wasn’t sure how many.
“We’re hearing that a lot of them either have compromised immune systems themselves, or someone they live with does,” Crosby said. “People need to do what they need to do, but it’s very distressing to lose people out of a profession that’s struggling to get people to stay.”
As the district grapples with numerous unsolved and murky issues, budget crises loom.
The district is facing a budget shortfall greater than $9 million this year, Ewert said, largely driven by a colossal contraction of the state budget, though that will be offset by more than $6 million in federal CARES act funding. The school board will discuss drawing money from reserves to cover the rest.
Even before the pandemic, LPS was struggling with its budget. The school board pulled $1 million from reserves early in 2020, seeking to soften the blow of $4 million in cuts that spurred the district to cut or cancel 17 staff positions.
Though this year will be covered, the future is unnerving, Ewert said.
The 2021-2022 budget could be “an absolute disaster,” Ewert said, unless the district gets more federal funding, or if voters at the state or local level approve as-yet-undetermined education initiatives.
The problem could get even worse if more students switch to private school or home schooling, Ewert said, taking per-pupil state funding with them.
Crosby said she’s frustrated at calls to reopen schools after years of what she called chronic underfunding of public education.
“If it’s so vital that we reopen, if we’re so essential to getting things rolling again in our society, we ought to be funded to reflect that,” Crosby said.
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