DENVER – Middle school and high school students in Denver will not be returning to the classroom until at least Nov. 9.
The announcement late Tuesday evening from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova comes a day after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said the city was in a “make-or-break moment” as infection rates of the novel coronavirus were trending upward, with the seven-day daily average being as high as it was during the initial months of the pandemic.
“I want to take a moment to assure you that we’re continuing to monitor closely these troubling rises in COVID spread and positivity rates,” Cordova said in a letter to parents, teachers and staff. “As has been the case since March, conditions and guidance change so frequently. What I do know for certain is that all of us in DPS just really want to teach and care for our kids, in our school buildings.”
In-person learning for middle and high school students at DPS was scheduled to begin on Oct. 21 after it was pushed back in late July.
Dr. Steve Federico with Denver Health says there are three things they are keeping an eye on in terms of COVID-19 numbers: the rate at which cases are increasing, the rate of transmission and the positivity rate.
"Since we’ve been looking at these indicators collectively, we have not had a scenario where all three were going up at the same time," Dr. Federico said. "When all three of them are going up at the same time, the decision was made that there would be a considerable amount of disruptions in in-person learning if we were to return at the middle and high school levels."
Within that data, Dr. Federico is also keeping a close eye on the number of middle and high school-aged kids who are contracting COVID-19 — a number that has increased in recent weeks.
Elementary schools in Denver will reopen as scheduled next week, Cordova said, citing support from local health experts at Denver Health for the plan.
“However, officials at Denver Health have urged more caution in looking at our middle and high schools. Older students have a higher COVID risk, and given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Denver, we have determined that most middle and high school students will continue with remote instruction for the first three weeks of the second quarter — through Friday, Nov. 6,” Cordova said.
In-person learning for middle and high school students will be limited to priority students (those served by special-education center programs, newcomer centers, and remote learning centers), as the district is able to provide more space and personal protective equipment (PPE) to support a safe return to buildings for them, Cordova said.
In a press conference Wednesday, Cordova said that while the district is facing a critical staffing shortage, the decision to delay the in-person learning was not related.
In an effort to help fill some of the gaps, central office staff will be filling in at least once a week in schools to help with things like lunch, recess and office duties among other things.
The district will re-evaluate the situation for the safe return of middle and high school students at the end of October, she added.
“We will continue to prioritize health and safety above all else, and we will follow health guidance. That’s been our approach since the pandemic started,” Cordova said in closing statements. “This was not an easy decision to make. Yet given our overriding focus on health and safety and the current COVID conditions and guidance we are receiving, we feel this is the right decision.”
Some parents tell Denver7 they are disappointed with the district's decision to delay in-person learning yet again.
Amelia Power is a mother of a middle school student and a high school student. While her 12-year-old daughter likes remote learning, Power says her son wants to return to class.
Power's 14-year-old is a freshman at George Washington High School who participates in the theater program.
"I feel like ever since the pandemic started, it’s been like, 'We’re going to see what’s going happen in two weeks, we’re going see what’s happening in three weeks, we’re going to see what’s happening in a month,' and it’s just impossible for kids to make decisions and for us to make plans," Power says.
The family lives close to Cheery Creek and Power says she doesn't understand why that district can return and DPS cannot. At the same time, at this point in the semester, Power says it might not be worth it to return to class before the winter break.
"I would rather they just say, 'You know what? Fall semester is a wash. We’re not doing in-person and let’s go from there,'" she said.
Cordova disagrees and says even a few weeks of in-person instruction can be beneficial for students.
"We frankly don’t want to lose the opportunity to serve students in person when we can if we see the numbers move down," she said.
Before in-person instruction does return though, Power says she'd like more information about what exactly that will look like and how it will work.
Christina Leone, meanwhile, says she wants more communication and transparency from the district about big decisions like this.
"Really, I feel like we’ve been gaslighted. We have been waiting to go back to school and every time — right before we’re going to start — there’s another reason why we can’t start. I want to hear why we’re not going to school," Leone said.
She first found out about the district's decision to delay in-person learning from a friend and says families need to be given more warning to adjust their own schedules.
She knows not all families are comfortable with in-person instruction but said she wants the option for her kids and says the district needs to figure out how to return safely.
"We have to figure out how are we going to balance this. How do we meet the needs of our children for families that want to return?" she said.
Both Leone and Power say the schools are doing a great job with remote learning and making a bad situation work. Leone says it comes down to better communication from the district.
"They have been told that they’re returning to school and then they’ve given some type of information to keep us guessing until they finally announce," Leone said. "As a parent, I need communication and I need it to be transparent and I need it with honesty. I don’t want to be told we’re going to go back again and not be able to go back."
Denver’s current positivity rate is 4.7% and anything over 5% “is going to mean a great deal of trouble,” Hancock said Monday, as he warned the city could revert to more strict measures if the number of coronavirus infections isn't brought down soon.
Denver County reported 15,103 cases of the new respiratory disease and 439 deaths Tuesday, according to the latest case data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).