The Douglas County School District plans to return elementary schools to full, in-person learning at the start of the spring semester and will take a phased approach to sending secondary students back to a hybrid learning model.
The Douglas County School Board threw its support behind the plan presented by interim Superintendent Corey Wise at its Dec. 10 board meeting.
Public comment at the meeting's start was filled with emotional pleas from special education, elementary and high school parents asking directors to send students back to in-person learning.
Parents said children are being robbed of a normal school experience, that grades are suffering significantly and children's mental health is floundering amid the isolation and stress of remote education.
Wise said district administrators understand pressures on the community, but he also wants families to understand the barriers he believes stand between the district and a quick return to in-person learning.
“I want you to know that as we evaluate, as we look into this, we do hear you,” Wise said.
Wise said a phased approach will allow the district to monitor two things: its ability to sustain in-person learning at an operational level and the safety of in-person learning based on COVID-19's status in the community.
The district will likely assess bringing middle school students back to hybrid learning at the Jan. 19 board meeting, according to the plan. Middle schools could restart hybrid learning by late January or early February if the district chooses to switch them back from remote education.
The district could then discuss sending high school students back to hybrid learning at the board's Feb. 16 meeting, with a possible start date in late February or early March.
Those dates could change, and students could return to some in-person learning sooner if possible, Wise said.
Operational pressures became a significant hurdle during the fall semester. Numerous schools were forced to switch from hybrid to remote learning temporarily after COVID-19 exposures placed more teachers in quarantine than there were available substitute teachers.
Then the district made a switch back to full remote learning at all grade levels on Nov. 30 as COVID-19 cases surged statewide.
Wise and Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John Douglas said state outbreak guidelines — which are legally binding for school districts — placed immense strain on school districts' abilities to conduct in-person learning.
Wise said he hopes quarantines requirements can shrink from 14 to 10 days for exposed people in district schools and that new guidance from a task force established by Gov. Jared Polis to send students back to in-person learning is expected in the coming days.
Chief Human Resources Officer Amanda Thompson said the district now has a pool of more than 600 substitutes and is hiring 70 more in the next two weeks. She thanked community members for applying to become substitutes and asked them to continue.
As the district assesses sending students back to some in-person learning, it will keep a close eye on its substitute teacher request and fill rate, Wise said. The district's ability to provide schools with as many substitutes as are requested will affect the district's ability to conduct in-person and hybrid learning.
A key COVID-19 data point will be the two-week cumulative incidence rate per 100,000 in Douglas County. Right now, that sits at 830, Douglas said.
Wise stressed multiple factors will influence the district's decision to change learning models, but the district might consider sending middle schools back to hybrid if the incidence rate is near 650 and operationally the district can manage keeping students in schools.
“This is not set in stone. This is one of the measures,” Wise said.
Wise said the district is confident most COVID-19 exposures this semester came from outside schools, and that district buildings provide a controlled environment for children.
“We do believe transmission within our schools is very low,” he said. “I think our schools are safer. I think our kids are safer in controlled spaces, and our schools are controlled spaces.”
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