Denver takes a second look at its reopening plans as cases increase

Decision on middle and high school in-person classes expected later this week

A cyclist performs tricks outside East High School in Denver on July 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Denver takes a second look at its reopening plans as cases increase” was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters.

Confirmed COVID cases in Denver are now at their highest point since May, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and local public health officials warned residents the city could move backwards and impose more restrictions on businesses and events if the trajectory doesn’t change.

It’s unclear what that means for Denver Public Schools’ phased reopening.

Colorado’s largest school district started the school year remotely and began bringing back the youngest elementary students in mid-September, with most elementary students expected back in classrooms by late October.

Superintendent Susana Cordova said Monday that those plans will continue. Young students struggle the most with online learning, and educators fear students will face long-term consequences if they don’t get strong foundations in basic literacy and math skills.

But Denver administrators are meeting with the school board and local public health officials to see if the district’s plans for middle and high school students need to change. They are expected to make a decision later this week.

Already, many middle and high schools in Denver were planning to either remain remote or open school buildings while continuing to offer most instruction online. Middle and high school principals have said the district’s strict cohorting requirements, meant to limit the number of students who would have to quarantine if a student or staff member has COVID, present major scheduling challenges.

In a presentation to the school board Monday night, Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health, reiterated that he believes it’s relatively safe to bring students back to school and that the greatest risk is that of frequent learning disruptions due to quarantine.

Even with most children still at home, cases of COVID among the school-aged population have risen in recent weeks, Burman said. Similar increases have occurred every time cases have risen in the community, with most children who contract the disease getting it from a family member. Cases among children are highest in southwest and northeast Denver, reflecting the heavy toll the disease has taken on Latino and African American communities.

The most recent increase in Denver started with a spike among college students at Regis University and the University of Denver. That led to more gradual increases among other age groups. Burman said the number of cases now is almost certainly far below the peak in the spring because testing was limited then. Nonetheless, he said the increase is concerning, and he repeated calls to improve mask wearing and reduce social gatherings.

Burman also said the city will be stepping up enforcement of public health orders.

Denver previously put stricter rules around colleges and universities. Members of the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Denver have been issued a criminal summons on suspicion of gathering without proper social distancing and with multiple people with COVID-19 in attendance, according to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. Alpha Phi is one of seven Greek houses at the University of Denver to have a confirmed COVID outbreak.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.