More Denver Public Schools students returned to in-person learning this semester. At the same time, teachers and staff in schools are beginning to have access to COVID-19 vaccines. For months, parents, teachers, and community members have debated whether it’s appropriate for DPS to reopen for in-person learning, particularly before in-school staff are fully vaccinated. Governor Polis recently prioritized teachers while calling for more schools to reopen.
Through a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request, The Denver North Star received data showing that as of February 1, 38.6% of students were still learning virtually while 57.4% of students across the district had returned to school. Data was not available for the remaining less than 4%. North Denver Schools varied. Looking at larger schools in the area, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval reported only 18% virtual and 79.2% in person. Skinner Middle School was 34.9%/65% virtual/in person. Both charter and neighborhood schools appear at both ends of the spectrum; neither appears to dominate either end, but the missing data could skew those numbers. For example, Strive Prep – Lake was 37% virtual vs 48.4% in person but didn’t have data for 14.5%. Lake Middle School, in contrast, was 45% virtual and 54.8% in person, with no data for only 1 student, or 0.2%. North High School tipped slightly more on the virtual side, with 50% virtual and 45% in person.
Scott Wolf, Principal at North High School, said the school is diligent about safety and they are welcoming more students back, but he respects the decisions families make. “It’s important to know that while there’s students who selected in-person, there’s students and parents who selected virtually,” adding that students are offered the same classes for either. Additionally, schools have adapted to the split, even having rallies virtually so everyone can participate. Wolf explained they “don’t want virtual kids to feel like they are missing out.”
For in-person learners, Wolf said surfaces are disinfected between classes, either by a teacher, custodial staff, or in some cases students. Classrooms are capped at 17 students (35 is standard), masks are required, and the school day has shifted slightly: students no longer eat on campus but go home earlier, reducing the amount of time they could potentially be near each other maskless.
According to data from the same CORA request, only 852 of the district’s 11,059 school-based staff had accommodations to work remotely, meaning 92.2% of school-based staff were reporting in person, a dramatically higher percentage than the rate students have returned. That number may come as a surprise to some parents and activists who have recently been critical of teachers not working in the buildings. As reported in The Denver North Star and elsewhere, there has been a backlash against teachers and the teachers’ union from parents and community members who had previously supported pay raises and other benefits but had recently come to resent teachers for not returning in person.
That’s not to say, however, that all teachers feel comfortable returning before vaccinations are done. Just before Polis announced teachers would be moved up in priority, teachers at several schools staged a “walk-in” before school started. Standing on the sidewalk as parents dropped off students and older students drove in, teachers held signs raising awareness of the need to reopen safely. Some had N95 masks poking out from underneath branded cloth ones. Unlike a strike, then they went into work. Tim Hernández is a 9th grade English teacher at North. While it’s his first semester teaching there, he said he grew up on the Northside and wants to do what’s best for the entire community. “A safe reopening is the best reopening,” he explained, worried about community spread.
Brad Laurvick, DPS Board of Education member representing North and West Denver, echoed that sentiment. “Let’s be clear: every single educator wants to be back in the classroom,” adding “I’m grateful for all the work to keep everyone as safe as possible. Even with [teacher and staff] vaccinations, we need to keep distance and keep everyone as healthy and safe as possible.”
DPS Board of Education member At-Large Tay Anderson showed up to listen to teachers’ concerns on the protest line. “I believe our teams in DPS have worked tirelessly [to reopen safely],” adding that he understands the concerns many teachers have about going back before receiving a vaccination. “I’m grateful Governor Polis bumped them up.”
Teachers are now eligible for vaccines, though they are not always available. As reported by The Denver Post on Feb 7, a recent mass vaccination event at the National Western Complex was “overrun” when organizers offered Jefferson County Schools 200 extra doses for teachers who could show up within an hour. The district emailed or texted 14,000 employees, resulting in chaos.
According to a spokesperson for Denver Public Schools, 1,000 vaccine appointments from Children’s Hospital are offered to DPS school-based staff each week, though they’ve been able to exceed that minimum. During the 2nd week of February, they were able to offer a total of 2,900, including 1,500 from Denver Health. “Our goal is to provide as many appointments as possible and as quickly as possible when vaccines become available.” As of Feb 9, they’ve offered 7,500 vaccine appointments through Children’s, Denver Health, and SCL Health.
Laurvick also praised DPS for having a plan in place, explaining they didn’t know when the Governor would prioritize educators but noting that the moment school employees were on the list the district started the process of getting teachers and other staff scheduled for vaccination appointments.