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Classrooms will be risky. Virtual learning falls short. How are Colorado parents choosing?

A girl wearing a colorful shirt works from her desk at home, writing on a piece of paper next to her laptop.
A third grader in Jeffco Public Schools works on her first day of online learning on March 17, 2020.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Across the metro area, parents of schoolchildren are stressing out as they weigh school district options to either send their students back to classrooms, or continue online learning.

Parents say that as school start dates approach, they wish they had more details about what school might look like during a pandemic. And for some metro-area districts school could be back in session in less than a month.

Some parents also worry that nothing the school districts do to mitigate the risks will guarantee safety, but that if online learning is anything like it was in the spring, their children won’t be getting a proper education from home.

Maria Enriquez, a Denver mother of three students, is thinking of keeping her children home next school year. But she recalls that online learning didn’t go well in the spring.

“Our internet was failing a lot and I don’t know why,” Enriquez said. “I was communicating with their teachers, but the kids didn’t have a lot of work.”

Enriquez’s husband has family in Houston who have COVID-19, including a brother-in-law who is on a ventilator. One of her children, a 9-year-old boy, has trouble keeping on his face mask, which Enriquez said would put him at risk at school.

“We don’t even know for sure who infects who,” Enriquez said. “So there’s still a worry.”

School districts have been releasing plans, but have asked for patience as they keep working out some details. Meanwhile, certain parts of the plans are contingent on public health guidance which could change as cases of COVID-19 trend upward again in Colorado.

Local public health officials have worked with school districts on these plans and have published guidance noting that children are less likely to be sick and less likely to transmit the coronavirus.

Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health, who also chairs the Metro Denver Partnership for Health, a consortium of public health agencies, said he believes diligent mask-wearing and health screens can keep schools safe. Adequate testing will also be important.

But Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which works on public health issues, says parents are right to be worried. He’s not sending his own children back to school.

“What we know is indoor, poorly ventilated spaces are a breeding ground for the virus,” he said.

In Jeffco, Mellisa Umphenour, the mother of a 15-year-old with special needs, worries about a lack of information.

On the one hand, her son would benefit from in-person services.

“He’s only got three years of services left and I’ve got to get him ready for the real world,” she said. “Real-life scenarios don’t happen in remote learning.”

But his condition does put him at high risk if he were to get infected, so Umphenour would like to know how the district will work with him and how his day would be structured.

“It’s difficult to make an informed decision,” she said. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Despite those unknowns, school districts have sent out surveys asking parents to indicate whether their students will return to school buildings, or continue learning online from home. Partly, districts want to identify how many teachers and staff they will need working in each environment.

In Jeffco, a district FAQ responding to a question about how parents are supposed to make a decision without more information states that the responses are not binding.

“We are just trying to gauge how many students are choosing each learning style in order to make appropriate staffing and building use decisions,” the district states. “Families can change their selection up until the first day of school, and/or at the change of semester.”

In Westminster, one of the first districts to announce its intention to open to all students full-time this fall, the parent survey is still open, awaiting more responses. So far, in the district of about 9,000 students, parents of just 300 so far have indicated they will continue with online learning. District officials expect that number to go up.

Lucy Molina, a mother of two students in Adams 14, north of Denver, said she also wants her children to stay home this school year.

“We live next to Suncor and have all these underlying conditions anyway,” Molina said.

Her children suffer from migraines and nosebleeds, which Molina often thinks are related to living next to the Suncor oil refinery. Molina’s elderly mom, who is diabetic, is also living with her for now. Her dad, who’s had a heart attack, and her aunt, who had breast cancer, are nearby.

In her house, Molina said making stressful school decisions involves her extended family.

Molina’s sister can’t work from home, and so is planning to send her children back to school in person. But Molina said that decision caused a family argument, because she doesn’t want her mom to be around grandkids who return to schools.

“I know that hurt my sister’s feelings,” Molina said. “She’s scared too.”

Martha Baron, a mother of two students in Aurora, is also factoring in her need to go back to work.

One of her daughters attends a charter school, and her youngest will be enrolled at a district-run elementary school in Aurora. But that means the plans for each child might not match up. Baron works at a restaurant that hasn’t yet reopened.

“The truth is I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Baron said. “If I get called back to work, I need to go, but I can’t leave my younger daughter home alone, unless my older daughter is also learning from home.”

This spring, her daughters weren’t doing much work from home, Baron said, so she would prefer they both go back to school in person. But she hasn’t heard details of the safety plans. She wonders if class sizes will be limited, and if teachers and students will actually use hand sanitizer and wash their hands regularly.

“When we bought disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer for classrooms, even before this pandemic, I always wondered if they actually used them,” Baron said. “There’s just a lot of concerns I have.”

Parents also have lots of questions about online learning, and whether it will actually be better than it was in the spring.

In Aurora, officials have said that learning for students who choose to stay remote this fall will have to be significantly different than in the spring, when the district did not make online instruction required for elementary and middle school students.

Many parents say they had to be their children’s teachers this spring, and worry that that wasn’t enough.

Molina said she hopes districts are using their planning time to make improvements to online learning that will make it more “user friendly” and that will engage parents.

Enriquez hopes her children will focus on more than just reading this time, and that there’s more live instruction.

And Umphenour in Jeffco wants the district to understand that she can also change her mind about how school is going.

“We have not dealt with this scenario before. As flexible as we are being with you,” Umphenour said. “You’re going to have to be flexible with me.”

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