Amid extended school closure, Colorado to allow small-group instruction in some districts

In the superintendents’ call Tuesday and again at Wednesday’s press conference, Polis said one-on-one and small-group instruction is allowed, provided the local public health department agrees it is safe to do so.

Some Colorado districts are planning to have staff and students return to the classroom in the coming weeks for small-group instruction, even as the governor has extended school closures until the end of the academic year.

An amendment to Colorado’s school closure order makes it clear that this is allowed, with Gov. Jared Polis saying he applauds the innovation. One superintendent described it as a trial run for a fall semester that could look very different from the old normal.

The change comes as Polis has laid out a path for partial reopening of the state, starting Monday, with many non-essential businesses allowed to resume operations provided they can meet social distancing requirements. While schools are officially closed for “normal in-person instruction,” they are also now part of Colorado’s experiment in whether we can restore aspects of our previous lives and still hold the spread of the virus to levels that won’t overwhelm the health care system.

Like workers in other sectors, some teachers have expressed concern about feeling pressured to return before it feels safe to do so, and it’s not clear how many parents would send their children to school while state public health authorities continue to urge everyone to stay home as much as possible — no matter how tired they may be of remote learning.

Those tensions are likely to extend through the summer and fall, as many public health experts are predicting waves of infection until we have either a vaccine or effective treatment.

Polis said he hopes and expects — but cannot guarantee — that Colorado students will return to their classrooms this fall. As first reported by the Gazette, Polis told superintendents in a call Tuesday morning to prepare for both possibilities.

And whenever students do return, school will look different, with changes to lunchtime and passing periods to reduce physical contact between students and staff, Polis said at a news conference Wednesday. Districts will start developing these plans over the summer.

Asked about some districts’ plans to provide small-group instruction, Polis said this is allowed. He cited certain special education services and welding classes as just two examples where in-person instruction would be appropriate.

“We applaud their innovation in doing that in a safe way,” Polis said.

Many Colorado school districts closed in mid-March as part of broader efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. An executive order, repeatedly extended, closed schools statewide on March 18. The most recent order was set to expire April 30. On Monday, the governor’s office said that both K-12 schools and institutions of higher education would remain closed until the end of the school year, joining more than two dozen other states with extended closures. But the office didn’t provide any details.

In the superintendents’ call Tuesday and again at Wednesday’s press conference, Polis said one-on-one and small-group instruction is allowed, provided the local public health department agrees it is safe to do so. Interested districts are primarily smaller and in rural communities. Public health departments also can have stricter standards than the state.

The initial executive order closing schools said school buildings still could be used for meal distribution and to facilitate remote learning. An amendment to the executive order signed Wednesday clarifies that it does not prevent districts from using their buildings to provide small-group instruction, teacher training, special education services, or mental health support.

The 1,300-student Fremont district in south central Colorado is one hoping to take advantage of this flexibility. Superintendent Brenda Krage said that starting Monday, she plans to hold in-person small-group tutoring sessions at her district’s secondary school. Participation will be entirely voluntary for students, she said.

Teachers who have health risks, or who care for someone who does, are not being asked to return to the classroom, and any teacher who feels uncomfortable will not be required to work, Krage said. There will be temperature checks, masks, and appropriate distancing. Classes will be capped at five students and two hours, with one supervised bathroom trip, a snack distributed on the way out the door, and lots of cleaning and hand-washing.

Krage said it’s increasingly clear that the old normal isn’t coming back any time soon, and that districts will need to “toggle back and forth fluidly” between in-person and remote learning depending on the public health situation.

“We have the opportunity to create a three-week window where we can practice that in a controlled environment and learn from it,” she said.

Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said teachers miss their students and their jobs, but safety needs to take priority.

The state teachers union “firmly believes the best thing for districts to do right now is avoid scheduling any interactions between students and educators, make distance learning a quality educational experience, and focus on returning everyone healthy to school when deemed safe,” she wrote in an email.

If districts do offer in-person instruction, “educators should make their own decisions,” she said. “They shouldn’t feel pressure or face any disciplinary consequences if they do not feel safe or comfortable returning to any in-person teaching and learning environment at this time.”

Polis said local public health departments will enforce distancing requirements at all workplaces, and that workers who don’t think conditions are safe should tell him on social media. Meanwhile, teachers from several districts who told Chalkbeat they worried about returning to work did not want to give their names.

Krage said the level of interest — and who is interested — is one thing she wants to gauge before the end of the school year. With the many gaps in online learning, she’s expecting more demand than the district can accommodate. But will it be younger students who have a harder time learning through technology? Students whose families don’t have home internet? Students with special needs?

Eventually, students will come back to school, and it’s better to prepare now, she said.

“Teachers are having a hard time wrapping their heads around coming back to work,” Krage said. “I have been very flexible, but come fall, they will have to come back to work. There is a psychological piece to returning to work, but we have to start somewhere.”

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on April 22, 2020. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.