COVID-19: Will DPS Remote-Learning Move Pressure Other Districts?

Classrooms in the Denver Public Schools system will be empty until mid-October because of COVID-19.
If you're a parent or guardian with a Denver Public Schools student, no need to apologize for being confused about the district's plans for the 2020-2021 academic year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a late-afternoon press conference on July 17, DPS announced that it would delay the start of classes by one week, until August 24, with an initial focus on remote learning that could transition to on-site teaching as soon as two weeks later. But yesterday, July 29, the district changed course, revealing that remote learning would remain in place until at least October 16.

Denver Public Schools, which also made headlines on July 29 after school board member Tay Anderson was reportedly injured during a protest at a downtown homeless camp, continues to struggle with communications. Note that the release announcing the press conference containing the October surprise was sent out more than 45 minutes after it had already started. But even so, as the largest school district in the state, DPS has an outsized influence on education policy throughout Colorado generally and the metro area in particular. Now parents are waiting to see if other school systems that have pledged to begin in-person instruction either full- time or part-time as early as next month will back off or forge ahead.

In a press release, DPS explains, "The change is a result of Colorado’s increasing number of COVID-19 cases and higher positivity rates over the last few weeks" — and the "Returning to School" page of its website echoes this theme. One passage contends that "throughout the pandemic, health conditions have frequently changed, and we are prepared to change along with them. DPS has worked on backup plans in case there are spikes of COVID-19 that would require us to move a group to online learning. We will follow all health department requirements for how to handle any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our schools."

Here's the July 29 Zoom conference, featuring DPS superintendent Susana Cordova.

The reference to flexibility makes sense, given the shifts necessitated by the rise of the novel coronavirus. When DPS closed schools on March 16, during the early days of the crisis, the district pledged that students would return to classrooms on April 6. But that never happened, and schools went remote for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year.

This time around, DPS isn't leading the remote-learning parade. On July 24, Aurora Public Schools revealed that students would be receiving cyber-instruction for the first quarter of the calendar, which ends on October 8.

But other major districts have different plans.

After the end of a marathon meeting on July 25 (it lasted well over eight hours), Douglas County School District declared that it would institute a hybrid model, with in-person learning and remote instruction taking place on alternating days. The Cherry Creek School District is offering a similar procedure, which it's dubbed "blended in-person learning." And the Boulder Valley School District has plans to launch in the third phase of its five-phase protocol, shorthanded as "partial return of students, as directed with enhanced and encouraged health protocols."

All of these approaches are allowed under guidelines created by the Colorado Department of Education that were made public last week. But the DPS move will undoubtedly trigger questions from parents in other districts, many of whom will wonder why their governing bodies plan for in-person instruction within weeks, when their peers in Denver have determined that doing so isn't as safe as it should be for students as well as teachers, administrators and other staffers.

Meanwhile, some private schools — especially ones that appeal to a conservative clientele — may see their decision to offer on-site education as an effective marketing tool, as is already happening at other locations across the country, according to a July 26 Washington Post article. But that's only if local public-health officials don't take unilateral action and determine that all schools in a given area must go remote.

Thus far, there's no indication that anything along these lines will happen, and at his July 28 press conference about COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis continued to talk about in-person instruction as a going concern. But he also said that low-income families that rely on schools for meals will be able to get assistance electronically even if their institutions are closed — an indication that he won't be surprised if more school districts in areas such as Denver, where viral case counts and hospitalizations have been trending upward, decide to take a lesson from DPS.

Click to read Denver Public Schools' family guidelines for virtual remote-learning plans.