Denver will shut down its pandemic-era online elementary school at the end of this school year, district officials announced at a school board meeting Monday.
Parents and teachers pleaded to save the school, describing the range of students who have benefitted, including neurodiverse students who find in-person classes overstimulating, students with high anxiety, those whose families are unhoused and highly mobile, and students who are immunocompromised or who live with someone who is.
“I will not be sending my children to in-person school,” parent Christin Finch told the school board. “The stakes could not be higher. The stakes are life and death.”
Denver Online Elementary, known as DOLE, opened in fall 2021 as an alternative to in-person learning. Several Colorado school districts set up similar programs.
Enrollment in online schools remains higher across the state than before the pandemic.
But DOLE is shrinking. Last year, the school enrolled about 550 students, said Cesar Cedillo, the district’s chief of schools. This year, DOLE has a little more than 200 students, he said. Principal Jesse Tang has said that 85% of DOLE students are students of color.
The reasons for shutting it down are twofold, Cedillo said: Young students learn best in person and COVID poses less of a health threat now that vaccines are available. A presentation notes that unlike last school year, when the omicron variant caused staffing shortages and school closures, there have been no school closures this year and fewer than five classroom closures.
Superintendent Alex Marrero said he’s sensitive to the reasons families choose online education, but he supports the rationale for closing the online elementary and “inviting students into the learning environment we know is proven to work best” — in-person learning.
Denver Public Schools will continue to have an online middle and high school, called Denver Online, that existed before the pandemic.
The district considers DOLE to be a program, not a school, Marrero said. That means its closure doesn’t require a vote of the school board, which recently rejected a plan to close several brick-and-mortar elementary schools with low enrollment.
But DOLE parents and teachers appealed to the school board anyway Monday, asking its seven members to intervene and keep DOLE open. They said the low-cost school — which doesn’t have to pay for transportation or lunchroom staff or custodians or copier paper — is blazing a trail and helping students who’ve struggled elsewhere find success.
“Our students are safe and nurtured,” said visual arts teacher Anderson Travis. “They can eat when they want to. They can bounce and fiddle without causing a distraction for other students. Our students can turn off their cameras when they feel anxiety and still be in the room learning.”
Parent Jeremy Bartel said he’s a cancer survivor whose immune system didn’t fully recover from chemotherapy. His two children attend DOLE.
“I’m here at great risk to talk to you tonight about myself and other immunocompromised people who send their children to this school,” Bartel said, wearing an N-95 mask in the gymnasium where the board hears public comment. “Please, please save our school.”
Parents and staff noted that DOLE students never have to endure lockdown drills, and parents don’t have to worry about school shooters. In October, Spanish-speaking parent Miriyan Jimenez told the board that she and her husband prefer that their daughter learn at home.
“She is our only daughter,” Jimenez said through an interpreter, “and having her go back to school makes us a little bit nervous.”
On Monday, school board members asked questions about how the district would support DOLE families and teachers in making the transition to new schools, but did not weigh in on the closure decision itself.
DOLE teachers also pointed to Denver’s declining enrollment, which is steepest at the elementary level. They said keeping DOLE open is a way to keep students in the district who otherwise might enroll in online options elsewhere.
“Where will 200-plus families go?” fifth-grade teacher Jenna Jennings asked the board. “My fear is that they will leave the district altogether.”
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at email@example.com.