‘Elated’ and ‘scared’: In-person learning in Poudre School District resumes

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As area elementary schools welcomed students back for full-time in-person learning Tuesday for the first time this school year, the Poudre School District community has mixed feelings about learning in-person while the pandemic rages on.

Elementary students, including pre-K, began full-time in-person learning Tuesday, with other grades gradually shifting to in-person learning over the next few weeks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, district officials have stressed the importance of having elementary students learning in-person as much as possible because those grades are harder to teach remotely and that age group is generally less impacted by the COVID-19 virus. 

At Zach Elementary School, many families and students seemed equally excited to be physically at school. Masked families took first-day-of-school photos before students walked to the outside doors of their classrooms. Parents were greeted by a sign that read “Best Day Ever #parents,” and one parent was overheard yelling “freedom!” in talking with another parent after the bell rang.

Zach Elementary School Principal Aisha Thomas said staff was “elated” to move into Phase 4, full-time in-person learning, instead of Phase 3, which only had half the students in the building two days a week. Phase 3, or hybrid learning, was difficult because it didn’t allow for the whole class to be together, making it hard to foster community with the whole class.

“(Our school) is all about connection and relationships,” Thomas said. “We’re so happy they’re back.”

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Middle school students in the district moved into hybrid learning Tuesday and will shift to full in-person learning Feb. 1, according to the district’s previously announced plan. 

High school students will remain in full remote learning until Jan. 25, when they will shift into hybrid learning for two weeks. On Feb. 8, high schools will join the rest of PSD in returning to full in-person learning.

Since the district announced moving all students into in-person learning, many students, parents and teachers have pushed back on the plan — especially for high schools, which were the most impacted by coronavirus cases and outbreaks in the first semester of the school year. 

A petition asking the district to abandon the plan to shift into hybrid or remote learning for secondary students has gained more than 2,800 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. Poudre High School senior Colton Littlewood started the petition because he fears the decision is “not very well thought out.”

While the district and health department claim data shows no significant spread of the virus inside schools, in-person learning indirectly encourages students to socialize outside the classroom, Littlewood said. Students may not understand why they’re allowed to be in a classroom of 20 or 30 other students but not allowed to socialize with a few friends at their house after school, he said.

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“I don’t think they considered how sending students to school reinforced poor social distancing outside of school,” Littlewood said. “… It sends a very mixed message.”

Littlewood said he is also concerned about how quickly the district is shifting between phases. By shifting from hybrid to in-person learning in 14 days — the same length as the potential incubation period for the virus — it doesn’t give the community enough time to see the impacts from limited in-person learning before shifting to full in-person learning. 

High schools were the most affected by coronavirus cases in the fall, with an outbreak forcing Fossil Ridge High School to close just before all school shifted to remote learning due to a rise in cases. 

Littlewood said he fears not enough has changed in the district’s health and safety measures to justify bringing all students back in-person. 

“Quite frankly, I’m scared,” said Rocky Mountain High School junior Dylan Lindsey, who has previously advocated for more targeted in-person instruction for older students instead of a full return to in-person learning. “It feels unnecessarily forced.”

Other students, parents and teachers voiced their concerns to the Board of Education during last week’s meeting, many echoing Littlewood’s points. Some parents joined public comment to thank the district for bringing back in-person learning, including Kelly Holdridge, who organized a protest at a board meeting last semester demanding in-person education be resumed as soon as possible. 

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Options remain for students, families who prefer remote

For those not ready to return to in-person learning, some options to stick with remote still exist, district spokesperson Madeline Noblett said.

Some grades of PSD Virtual — the district’s 100% online option established just for this school year — have slots still available, Noblett said. Families can apply to have their student transfer into PSDV by visiting www.psdschools.org/psd2020-21/psdvirtual.

The virtual option may not work for all students wishing to stay remote, especially high school students needing certain classes to graduate that might not be offered through PSDV. 

For secondary students, the district is planning more widespread broadcasting of classes so students can watch lectures in-person or at home, Noblett said, as some classes did in the fall. 

“We’re going to have to move the ball forward and we feel like that’s a nice bridge,” Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Scott Nielsen told the board last week when presenting the idea. 

A family embraces at Zach Elementary School as students return to in-person learning in Fort Collins, Colo. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

Broadcasting won’t be available for elementary students who are not able to work as independently as secondary students and who would struggle more without guidance from their teachers, Noblett said. 

Though students watching remotely won’t be able to ask questions or engage with the class through the broadcast, students learning at home can access all class materials through the teacher’s webpage as they did when all students learned remotely, Noblett said. 

The district doesn’t have an estimate for how many students might choose the broadcasting option, Noblett said. They hope to have broadcasting available for all secondary classes by the time full-time in-person learning resumes in the coming weeks. 

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Changes to make in-person safer

The district has learned a lot from challenges and successes last semester, and new solutions have been implemented over winter break to make students and staff safer in-person, Noblett said.

Schools will continue reinforcing face coverings, hand washing and maintaining a 3- to-6-foot distance between others, per health department guidance, Noblett said. Colorado and Larimer County health officials have told schools to keep students at least 3 feet apart, acknowledging the limited space most school buildings have.

“We have to be able to work together to build and maintain our culture of share safety,” Noblett said.

To help reinforce the effectiveness of the other safety measures, Noblett said students will see more plastic partitions throughout the buildings, largely where distancing is not possible.

Contact tracing has been ramped up to make it more efficient and lessen the workload for tracers, Noblett said.

A family crosses the crosswalk at Zach Elementary School as students return to in-person learning in Fort Collins, Colo. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

At the pre-K and elementary level, entire classes will shift to remote learning for 10 days if a case is detected and targeted tracing will be done for staff to determine who needs to quarantine, Noblett said. Targeted tracing for staff will prevent the staff shortages many schools experienced last semester due to sweeping quarantines. 

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For secondary schools, entire classes will shift remotely for the initial assessment period while contact tracers identify close contacts, much like last semester. Last semester, the assessment period was set at four days, but Noblett said they won’t set a time frame this semester and that the “county will work pretty darn quickly” to identify the close contacts who need to quarantine for 10 days. 

Larimer County Health Department Director Tom Gonzales said the county also has more of its staff dedicated to contact tracing this semester to help make contact tracing more effective.

“We learned a lot back in October and November,” Gonzales said.

District staff will also consult with principals about the need to temporarily close schools when the percent positivity rate in a school is 1% or higher, Noblett said. A 1% positivity rate won’t necessarily require a closure, but “that will be a really important discussion to have.” 

Staffing shortages were among the reasons Fossil Ridge High School shifted to remote learning just before all PSD schools in the fall, Noblett said, and “we still have not solved the staffing challenge.”

Targeted contact tracing at the elementary level will help, Noblett said, but even losing just one or two staff members for the quarantine period could be significant. 

The district is also hiring substitute teachers, bus drivers, child nutrition specialists and other staff, Noblett said. Colorado has also streamlined the substitute process, making it easier to get a one-year substitute teaching license. 

Anyone interested in applying for a job with the district can learn more at www.psdschools.org/careers

School district-specific COVID-19 testing sites are in the works to help get staff tested with quick results, Noblett said. Working with the state and local health departments, they hope to start testing symptomatic staff members first and expanding to students if possible.

“I think this is a key element to in-person and hybrid learning that’s safe is expanding testing for the schools,” Gonzales said. “… They need to be tested and they need to know now.” 

The hope is testing staff quickly will help bring more of them back to work faster, Noblett said.

“Our North Star is keeping our kiddos in school, learning,” Gonzales said. 

Sady Swanson covers public safety, K-12 education and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at sswanson@coloradoan.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.