Littleton Public Schools affirms in-person start despite concerns

Teachers fear that things could get worse fast

David Gilbert
dgilbert@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/17/20

Littleton Public Schools officials say the district is on track to begin the school year with in-person learning on Aug. 24, though many district teachers and parents say they remain extremely …

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Littleton Public Schools affirms in-person start despite concerns

Teachers fear that things could get worse fast

Posted

Littleton Public Schools officials say the district is on track to begin the school year with in-person learning on Aug. 24, though many district teachers and parents told the school board they remain extremely skeptical of the decision and would prefer the school year begin online.

At the Aug. 13 school board meeting, the board reaffirmed the decision to begin the school year with five-day in-person weeks at the elementary level, and a hybrid model at the middle and high school level that will see students split their time between classroom and online learning. Families also have the option to choose a fully online curriculum at all grade levels.

Watch the Aug. 13 school board meeting.

At the prior school board meeting at the end of July, Superintendent Brian Ewert introduced a four-metric scale that would be used to determine whether schools could stay open, based on county-level statistics of novel coronavirus infection rates. At the time, the metric showed the district scored a 4 on an 8-point scale, considered the bare minimum to reopen.

Since then, Ewert reported at the Aug. 13 meeting, the data had improved, with the district showing a score of 7, largely driven by a reduction in uncontrolled community spread.

Still, many teachers say reopening schools remains highly dangerous, saying the community's improved infection numbers could become far worse once students begin intermingling in large numbers.

“My wife and I have invested our lives in this community,” Littleton High School teacher Kevin Brooks told the board. “She has interstitial lung disease. She's been a substitute teacher, but she won't this year. I will never forgive myself if I do bring that virus home to her. I offer that starting remotely would solve nearly all the decisions we're discussing.”

The district has seen numerous teachers choose early retirements and leaves of absence this summer, said Michael Jones, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources.

About 1,500 students had enrolled in TOPS, the district's online learning program, as of the Aug. 13 meeting, representing about a tenth of the district's roughly 15,000 students.

Some callers to the meeting expressed doubts about the equity of the TOPS curriculum, saying the program  does not currently allow students to finish International Baccalaureate degrees.

Board hears concerns

Some students and parents who called into the meeting expressed deep concern over in-person learning.

“I don't want my kids to be exposed to this virus,” said parent Ryan Stearns. “I don't want my family members to be exposed to it... All the signs are pointing to this being a terrible situation. But my ex-wife doesn't believe what's out there. She wants them to go to school. I don't have a legal basis to stand up for me. If you make decision to go in person, I don't have a choice ... So I'm leaving it up to you guys. I need the district to do the right thing. Don't roll the dice and take chances with lives.”

Numerous local districts have announced they will begin the school year remotely, including Denver, Aurora and Jefferson County.

The Littleton Education Association, the district's teacher's union, submitted a letter to the board, citing surveys of teachers showing widespread trepidation about a reopening.

The group said it cannot endorse the reopening plans, saying there is not yet enough information to ensure that students and staff can be kept safe.

“This announcement is made without animosity or acrimony, yet with gratitude to all of the individuals ... who have tried valiantly since June to create a safe and workable plan for reopening LPS schools in person,” the letter reads in part.

Read the full letter.

Respondents to the survey, which the LEA says includes 80% of teachers in the group, which represents three-quarters of district teachers, largely say they feel schools do not have adequate safety measures in place. Overall, half of respondents say they would prefer a remote start to the school year. 

While a third of elementary school teachers surveyed said they prefer a remote start, nearly two-thirds of middle and high school teachers preferred distance learning to in-person education.

“It goes without saying that respondents think that in-person instruction is more effective for most students,” the letter reads in part, but says “the health and safety risks posed by COVID-19 are greater than the educational rewards posted by the current LPS restart plan.”

District makes preparations

District officials say they have gone to great lengths to ensure the safety of in-person learning, including mandating face masks for all students in all grades except preschool, removing extraneous furniture and materials from all classrooms, securing supplies of personal protective equipment for teachers and staff, arranging for free coronavirus testing, and establishing protocols and schedules to reduce student intermingling.

Principals who spoke at the Aug. 13 meeting agreed they are looking forward to welcoming students back to school.

“There is no perfect plan,” Arapahoe High School principal Natalie Pramenko told the board. “We believe the current restart plan is the best opportunity to begin the 2020 school year. Schools provide so much more than just education.”

“I'm aware of the rhetoric of teachers feeling scared,” said Bryan Breuer, the principal of Goddard Middle School. “It's incredibly important to pause and listen and understand. I believe in science. I know these are difficult decisions. I'm a Littleton community member, and the father of two high school kids going back under the (hybrid) model.”

Other callers to the meeting expressed concerns that reopening schools would simply result in widespread shutdowns if the virus causes outbreaks among students and staff.

Ewert said district officials will work closely with Tri-County Health Department to contain outbreaks by strategically targeting close student populations, but acknowledged schools could see closures.

Though board members acknowledged the situation is tenuous, they unanimously agreed to endorse the current reopening plan, saying there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and saying in-person learning is important to make sure all families and students have the chance to have their needs met.

Board member Kelly Perez said she recently spoke with several high school juniors who were excited to return to school.

“It's about the students,” Perez said, saying even if outbreaks force school-wide shutdowns in a matter of weeks, at least students will have had a chance to connect with teachers in-person. “It's scary. Nobody wants to go to work and end up dead. The thing is, after a lot of thought and talking to people, the district has done a whole bunch of work ... It was very powerful to hear principals say the teachers are excited. We're all scared of ending up on a ventilator or dying. The district did a phenomenal job. Get the kids in school. Let them meet the teachers.”

“I want our community to recognize this is not an easy thing we're asking of this system,” said board member Carrie Warren-Gully. "The easy thing would've been to say we're going remote ... This is an incredbly emotional time. We have to make a decision that's the best for all of our students, not just some of them. We have students who could be home alone doing online. We have students in potentially in life-threatening situations that will only be reported by going to school ... We are moving together as a community.”

“I'm at minimum ambivalent,” said board member Robert Reichardt. “But I'm placing my bet here. My two health-compromised children will go to high school in-person on the 24th.”

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