At Walnut Hills Elementary in Centennial, a parade of parents dropped off masked fifth-graders in the early morning for the first day of the 2020-21 academic year — and the first element of the Cherry Creek School District’s plan for in-person learning for the vast majority of its 55,000 students.
Cherry Creek is taking a cautious approach in its first week back in the classroom, with each elementary grade getting its own dedicated day in-person this week before everyone is back in school next week.
“As a district, we didn’t take this lightly,” said Teolyn Bourbonnie, principal of Walnut Hills, which has an enrollment of 203 students. “We’ve done the adequate amount of planning and putting in place safety measures to bring back the kids.”
Those measures include masks for all students and staff, staggered lunch times and recesses to keep crowding to a minimum and directional tape in the hallways to control the flow of little feet throughout the building. There are around 40 kids in Walnut Hills’ fifth-grade class, which lined up aside two rows of orange cones outside the school Monday morning before the 8 a.m. starting bell sounded.
“It’s great to have the kids back in school — we’re all excited,” Bourbonnie said. “Kids need to be in school.”
Still, the year begins with uncertainty as several schools around the country that have reopened in recent days have had to revisit their decisions as cases of COVID-19 began circulating.
Walnut Hills Elementary parent Jeff Ross said he’s not worried about the return to school for his son, Bryce, whose third-grade class commences in-person instruction Wednesday. Ross was dropping his son off at the school Monday morning for a summer school program that has been held at Walnut Hills for the past month or so.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Ross said of in-person learning, which ended abruptly in March as the virus began its spread across Colorado. “The structure of remote learning (in the spring) was good, but my boy didn’t take to it. It was a challenge for us to keep him on task.”
Convincing his kid to wear a mask? No big deal, Ross said: “He’s really into Star Wars right now so he’s into being Darth Vader.”
Cherry Creek and Douglas County are the biggest districts in the metro area starting the school year with at least some in-person instruction. Westminster Public Schools is opening its buildings to the majority of its student body on Thursday, and Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County is reopening with in-person classes later this month.
Jefferson County, the second-largest school district in Colorado, has put off in-person learning for at least the first two weeks of the school year, while the biggest district in the state, Denver Public Schools, has postponed the opening of schools until at least mid-October.
The resumption of school in the United States has prompted much debate — and politicization — as the stabilization of COVID-19 case numbers in late May gave way to a surge in infections as people began congregating more, bringing the country’s caseload to nearly 5.4 million and deaths to 170,000.
While the respiratory disease the coronavirus causes overwhelmingly targets older people and those with existing health problems, children are not entirely immune to it. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that nearly 180,000 new cases of COVID-19 in children were recorded in the United States from July 9 to Aug. 6, a 90% increase in child cases over that time period.
The academy did note, however, that “available data indicated that COVID-19-associated hospitalization and death is uncommon in children.”
Many advocates of in-person learning note that nothing can match the value of face-to-face instruction, especially for children with special needs or those who may not be able to afford the technology required for learning over the internet.
Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, said the union worked diligently with the district over the last few months to figure out how to best approach the reopening. Even if Cherry Creek is forced to close again, depending on how coronavirus behaves in Arapahoe County, Ellis said, there is value to having at least a bit of face time and interaction between teachers and students.
“It’s important to make a personal connection with students,” she said.