For months, district leaders at Jeffco Public Schools have been discussing what next year’s balance of in-person and remote learning will look like. That conversation has included the entire …
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For months, district leaders at Jeffco Public Schools have been discussing what next year’s balance of in-person and remote learning will look like. That conversation has included the entire community, with individuals weighing in at school board meetings and through an online survey, which has been open since late May.
The survey was scheduled to remain open through the end of June, with the district planning to release its final Restart Jeffco plan on July 8.
But on June 19, the district announced that while the survey would continue as scheduled, one element of next year’s plan had officially been determined: Elementary students would have the option to return for full-time in-person learning in the 2020-2021 school year.
“Because we operate in a competitive school environment where families have options, we felt it in the best interest of our schools to not delay the announcement at the elementary level,” Superintendent Jason Glass said.
By June 18, the district had already received more than 16,000 survey responses, he said.
In the days leading up to that, the survey was receiving less than 100 responses per day. The overwhelming majority of existing and new respondents were indicating that they were either certain or likely to send their child back to school for in-person instruction if public health partners gave their approval, Glass said.
Based on its collaboration with Jefferson County Public Health “and the development of numerous public health and virus mitigation strategies the district plans to employ in the fall, we have developed a workable model for opening elementary schools safely,” Glass said.
With the plan, parents can either send their elementary-aged children to school every day or keep their children at home for a 100% remote experience.
The plan addresses concerns for some parents, particularly those who would not have child care without the 100% in-person option, deputy superintendent Kristopher Schuh said in a June 4 school board meeting.
Jeffco parent Brandi Hawkins, a Golden resident who spoke at the meeting, added to that the academic benefits of such a plan. She said she felt an 100% in-person option would be integral for all children, especially those who have fallen behind during months of remote learning.
“The toll that this lockdown has taken on students of all ages … will be felt for years,” she said. “I have a first-grader with an IEP (individualized education program). Before the close-down, she was almost caught up with her class. She has regressed so much.
“No amount of Zoom meetings or my limited ability to offer special education in my house matched the quality that was provided in school,” Hawkins said.
Her thoughts appeared to echo the majority of parents who spoke at the meeting and who responded to the district survey.
That said, as of June 18, about 10% of the roughly 16,000 survey respondents said they were likely or certain not to send their children back for in-person learning.
And for some, the most recent announcement has raised concerns.
“Social distancing and kids don’t go together very well. My first thought was, ‘how do we do that safely?’” said Kay Slater, who has two students at Littleton’s Dutch Creek Elementary and a student at Columbine High.
Slater is a caretaker for a family member who is undergoing intensive chemotherapy. By attending school five days per week, her children would be much more likely to come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 and potentially spread the virus to Slater, putting her immunocompromised family member at risk, she said.
At the same time, she feels her children would learn more in an in-person environment.
“That choice is almost impossible,” she said. “We’re still talking about it and just watching what happens in the community.”
The district previously discussed a hybrid model, in which students would attend school in-person only one or two days a week. That model might have worked better for families like hers, Slater said.
But without knowing what the future holds, she added it’s difficult to know what the best option for everybody would be.
“We’re too far out to know what’s smartest to do,” she said. “I wish I knew. I’m not genuinely worried about the safety of my students, but I am genuinely worried about the safety of the adults and teachers that will be interacting with them.”
Brooke Williams, president of teachers union Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA), echoed the sentiment. The union has weekly meetings with district leaders and while they have discussed some possibilities for the restart plan, the union did not weigh in specifically on elementary students returning full-time, she said.
“We don’t want things happening to us, but with us,” Williams said. “We love our students and we want to be back with our students, but we also want to ensure our students and employees are safe.”
Williams said she has heard from teachers on both ends of the spectrum.
Some teachers say they are excited about the prospect that an in-person environment will better meet many students’ needs.
Others are concerned over current circumstances. Widespread COVID-19 testing is not currently available. The district has not yet secured all of the personal protective equipment it needs and has not issued a statement on whether masks will be encouraged or required.
“We’re not sure if the district really has the capability to protect us,” Williams said.
Glass said the district, to the extent it is able, aims to accommodate staff members with comorbidities and health concerns. He also highlighted that the district is continuing to gather input on the remaining elements of its restart plan, including the learning model for secondary students, symptom-screening procedures and cleaning procedures.
For the JCEA’s part, the teachers hope to play a bigger role in the decisions made about next year, Williams said.
“We may need to clearly define what collaboration is,” she said.
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