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Jeffco Schools announces 2-phase pivot to remote learning on Nov. 16

Rising case counts in Jefferson County and inside Jeffco schools prompted a pivot to remote learning for middle and high schools starting Nov. 16.

On Monday, Jeffco’s middle and high schools will pivot to 100 percent remote learning until winter break.

Elementary schools will continue in-person learning for four more days through Nov. 19. Nov. 20 will be a non-contact day to give K-5 staff time to prepare for the switch. After Thanksgiving break, K-5 students will pivot to remote learning starting Monday, Nov. 30 until the end of winter break on Jan. 7.

Jeffco’s preschool classes will remain in-person, though families have the option to switch preschool students to remote learning.

The announcement followed the county’s move to Safer at Home – Level Orange on Nov. 9. Jeffco Schools was also posting dramatically increasing numbers of positive cases on their COVID-19 dashboard. In addition, 13 schools — six high schools, two middle schools, and five elementary — had already pivoted to remote learning in a five-day span due to positive cases and staff quarantines.

“Future quarantine activity is likely to increase and send more of our schools into 24- to 48-hour closures or transitions to full remote learning on short notice,” explained Interim Superintendent Kristopher Schuh in his announcement.

“Simply put, we’ve now reached the point at which the benefits of in-person learning are outweighed by the disruption caused by abrupt transitions to quarantines and by the risk of COVID-19 exposures within our buildings,” Schuh said.

Details about this pivot to remote learning

Details about the pivot to remote learning vary by grade level. Here are the highlights:

  • Once in 100% remote, all K-12 students will participate in synchronous learning Monday through Thursday.
  • Fridays will be either a synchronous or asynchronous learning day, depending on the school.
    • Current Friday bell schedules will remain unchanged for 6th through 12th grade students.
    • K-5 schools will tell families about their plans for asynchronous or synchronous learning on Fridays.
  • Full-day childcare options will be available through Jeffco’s School Age Enrichment programs, and new students will be accepted if space is available. More details are available on the Jeffco Schools website.
  • In-person learning will continue for students with significant needs. Schools will communicate directly with those families.
  • Select Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs will continue in-person. Schools will communicate with students about which programs will continue and which will pivot to remote.
  • Free Grab & Go Meals will continue to be available for all Jeffco students. See the Jeffco Schools Fall 2020 Meals Program page for pickup locations and times.
  • Athletics and designated activities, without spectators, will continue through Dec. 5 to allow teams to end their season. This could change due to new public health orders or new decisions by the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).
  • Jeffco Schools will continue to work with Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) to determine when schools can move back to in-person learning after winter break.

Rising case counts, operational challenges prompted pivot

In the past week, positive cases and quarantines required multiple schools to pivot to remote for two weeks. Many additional schools were closed for 24-48 hours for cleaning.

Thirteen schools pivoted to remote learning between the Nov. 5 board meeting and the board study session on the morning of Nov. 11.

In addition, some of the 24-hour closures extended to 48 hours due to staff shortages and the amount of time needed to transfer equipment between schools, said Julie Wilken, Jeffco director of health services.

School outbreaks also increased from 22 on Nov. 5 to 35 by Nov. 11, Wilken said. Jeffco Schools was also working with JCPH and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) regarding 19 additional suspected outbreaks, Wilken said.

Nearly half of Jeffco’s confirmed high school outbreaks are connected to sports, including football, basketball, hockey, and cheerleading.

school outbreaks
While outbreaks have been limited to the school environment in preschool, elementary, and middle schools, 8 of 18 outbreaks in high schools were tied to sports. Two of the outbreaks have since been closed, but the remaining 35 are open.

Cases in the school district as of Nov. 10 were at 459, which, if put into the COVID-19 dial framework, would put Jeffco Schools in the Stay at Home category, Wilken said. That number had risen to 465 by Nov. 12 and 544 by Nov. 13, according to the Jeffco Schools COVID-19 dashboard.

Jefferson County saw similar increases. On Nov. 11, Jefferson County’s two-week cumulative incidence was at 627.4, with positivity at 10.5 percent, Wilken said.

A week earlier, cumulative incidents throughout Jefferson County were at 431, with an average positivity at 7.7 percent. That number grew to 774.2 with 11.2 percent positivity by Nov. 13, with hospitalizations also increasing.

Positive cases, quarantines cause operational challenges

Positive cases and increasing numbers of quarantined staff also impact whether Jeffco can keep schools open.

For example, fewer subs are available to cover classes, explained Tom McDermott, chief strategy officer. To cover classes, teachers and staff are giving up planning periods to cover other classes. Nearly half of the Education Center administrators are now in schools as substitute teachers, and schools are also sending staff to other schools as substitute teachers.

This has led to a lot of variability in who students see in front of a class on any given day, McDermott said.

Shifts between in-person and remote due to cleaning closures and quarantines are also causing problems.

“There’s a lack of consistency in the educational environment,” he explained.

Multiple school bus routes have also been suspended due to positive cases and quarantines among staff, McDermott said. Families whose students cannot get to school without the bus have had to switch to remote learning as a result

Wednesday’s proposal: Keep K-5 mostly in-person, move 6-12 to 100 percent remote

At the Nov. 11 board meeting, district staff proposed moving PK-5 students to a four-day in-person week. Fridays were to be remote independent learning days, beginning Nov. 20.

The proposal also recommended moving to 100 percent remote learning for grades 6-12 from Nov. 16 through at least Dec. 4.

Schuh cautioned board members that even keeping K-5 schools open was tenuous.

“We are reaching that critical stage of operations where it’s very difficult for us to maintain operations in elementary schools,” Schuh said. “That’s the data we’re looking at now. These are conversations we will engage in with Jeffco Public Health tomorrow.”

“I want our elementary parents and staff members to know I think this is inevitable. I do believe that those numbers will continue to rise and I do believe that there will be a decision to pivot our elementary schools into 100 percent remote,” he added. “This guidance could be coming quickly.”

By the time Schuh released the official announcement on Nov. 12, district staff in collaboration with JCPH had decided to pivot K-5 schools to 100 percent remote after Thanksgiving break.

What are the triggers to move back to in-person learning?

For Jeffco Schools to move back to in-person learning, Jeffco needs to move all three elements of the COVID-19 dial back into yellow levels, Schuh said.

For Jefferson County to move back to Level Yellow, cases would have to drop to a 75-175 two-week cumulative incidence — a 77 percent decrease from current numbers. Positivity would need to be at or under 10 percent. In addition, hospitalizations would have to be stable or declining.

Schuh cautioned that returning to in-person would take more than declining positive cases among Jeffco Schools students and staff. Naturally, numbers on the dashboard should decrease after grades 6-12 pivot to remote, he said. But as long as our county numbers are increasing, we can assume there will be a correlation and impact to our schools as well, he added.

“With this kind of increase from our own community, it will be very difficult in coming back into school,” Wilken said.

COVID-19 dial metrics
The current CDPHE COVID-19 dial metrics outline where case numbers, positivity rates, and hospitalizations need to be for counties to move up or down into different levels on the dial. It only takes an increase in one metric to move counties into a more restricted level, but requires decreases in all three metrics to move counties into less restrictive levels.

School board reactions

“Ultimately when it comes down to it our job is to ensure the safety of our students and our staff,” said board member Ron Mitchell.

Board member Stephanie Schooley encouraged Jeffco Schools to be good partners with groups that are working to provide whole-child supports. Those groups include the Edgewater Collective, Jeffco Coalition of the Willing, and Coloradans for the Common Good.

Board member Brad Rupert asked Schuh what Jeffco is doing to coordinate with groups that are trying to form these outside supports to help facilitate remote learning.

Schuh said the district needed to organize different groups of learning pods through the cabinet. After that, district staff will present next steps to support students at a board meeting.

Board member Susan Miller asked what could be done to return to targeted contact tracing.

Wilken explained that the quarantine rules impacts all school districts. She said she and other district officials hope that local public health agencies will come together to develop new strategies, including a new level of metrics for school districts.

“They don’t want our kids to not be in school,” Wilken said.

Miller questioned whether the state was telling local organizations what to do.

Wilken responded that she meets continuously with JCPH and has also been involved in meetings with CDPHE.

“I think it’s really important to point out to the listeners…that all along we have valued in-person education,” Rupert said. “You can see operationally that it is becoming very, very difficult to continue to have in-person school in any way that would be effective.”

“I believe that we do have a shared lens, and that shared lens is that we all believe what we are doing is what’s best for kids,” Harmon said. “We may not have shared experiences in terms of how that plays out in our home, in our school, in our perceptions of what’s happening in our world, which leads us to different conclusions about how to move forward.”

“This will continue to be a dynamic situation,” Harmon said.

Lisa Cook

Lisa Cook, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, musicologist and Jeffco resident since 1999 with two children attending Jeffco Schools. Lisa earned a BA from Valparaiso University, a Masters in Music from Colorado State University, and her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not working, she can be found running (ideally on mountain trails) with Midnight, her miniature poodle. Please visit our "About Us" page to learn more about Lisa and our other writers.

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