Earlier this week, Westword published a leaked Denver Public Schools document outlining standards for in-person instruction, which is currently scheduled to begin on October 16. Among the revelations in safety protocols put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic were recommendations for sixth- to twelfth-graders that allowed up to thirty students per classroom with social distancing of just three feet — a prospect that alarmed a number of teachers with whom we communicated.
More than a day after the post appeared, DPS media relations manager Winna MacLaren responded to our queries about the document by describing it as "an older draft of guidance around cohorts" — groupings of pupils kept small in an attempt to prevent an infection from spreading to the larger school community. MacLaren referred us to what she described as "updated guidance and information" recently posted on The Commons section of the DPS website.
Rather than backing off the thirty-students-per-classroom limit at the secondary level, however, the new advice okays up to 35 students in such spaces — and reiterates that three feet of distancing for middle school and high school attendees is fine.
Here's the information listed under the heading "Student School Day Cohorts."
• If 3-foot distancing can occur classes can be normal size, up to contract limit of 35.
• Students in grades 6-12 should be socially distanced a minimum of 3 feet.
• It is assumed that in most secondary classrooms, this social distancing requirement can be met with class sizes of 35, but this should be confirmed for your building.
• If secondary leaders consider it best for their community, they can group students in smaller cohorts and have them participate in multiple cohorts, provided that the total exposure group does not exceed 35.
An additional note in a passage labeled "Social Distancing Within Cohorts" contends that "3 foot distance will be maintained, plus the guidance on face coverings. This has been found to be as effective as 6 foot distance."
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Even the prospect of thirty-student middle school and high school classrooms was alarming to one teacher who answered Westword's questions on the promise of anonymity. In that educator's words, "Allowing thirty students in a classroom together, within three feet of each other, is ridiculous. Students will not be able to keep social distancing measures, nor can they be expected to make it through a full school day with a mask on. When you actually start to think through all of the details, it becomes glaringly obvious how impossible it is to plan effectively for a safe return. Classrooms are small, and full of desks and furniture. How do we handle bathrooms safely? Or lunch?"
DPS's MacLaren disputes this take. "This guidance for the Safer at Home in-person phase has been developed based on our best understanding of guidance from CDE [Colorado Department of Education] and CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment], guidance from Denver Health, and input from internal educator-led work groups and departments."
MacLaren adds that the approach to on-site instruction "will continue to undergo change as we partner with local public health officials."
Such shifts have already taken place — for the worse, according to another teacher, who said previous guidance had classroom limits of fifteen students at the secondary level, along with distancing of six feet.