PUEBLO — Pueblo schools are getting ready to welcome students back to school this fall, but it will look very different from any other year. News5 discussed the plans for both School District 60 and 70, which they hope to implement as long as health guidelines surrounding coronavirus allow them to do so.
Suzanne Morey is the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning for School District 60. Morey said when schools shut down earlier this year, they first focused on providing their students with virtual instruction through the semester and then on graduation, but that she knew the fall would also look different.
There are 31 schools in District 60, with around 16,000 students.
The district has been working with a 75 member Stakeholder Task Force to pick an instructional model for the upcoming semester. Those on the task force include students, staff, teachers, administrators, and parents.
The task force will make a recommendation of their plan to the superintendent, who will then bring it to the Board of Education for their support. They hope to give families exact details on the plan they choose by the end of July, or early August.
School District 60 sent out a survey, and of the households that responded, 87% said they would prefer in-person classes, or a hybrid model combining physical schooling with virtual learning. Morey said the model will need to be flexible because of COVID-19, but their hope is to bring students back in the fall for at least some in-person learning. "There is nothing that can compare to in-person instruction from our teachers. That being said, we have to take into consideration those health and safety precautions," said Morey.
If students do find themselves back at school, they can expect daily temperature checks, lots of hand washing, social distancing when possible, thorough sanitation procedures, and a culture of mask-wearing. They have not yet finalized the culture of mask-wearing for different grades. Morey also said they could have certain groups of students that stick together, called a cohort, to limit the number of people exposed if there is a case of coronavirus.
Morey said they want to ensure every one of their students has access to technology. "We know that there are going to be students, who for a health reason or another reason, are not going to be able to come back for in person learning. And so, we are going to accommodate their needs with a fully distanced learning, 100% distanced learning from home for those who do need that," said Morey.
Morey also said the district has been thoughtful about their budget, because they know there could be a need for more money for things like transportation, sanitation, and potentially staffing requirements.
The Pueblo Education Association is a union representing the teachers of School District 60. "Truthfully, the biggest concern we've been hearing from teachers has been concerns about health and safety... We don't want to have teachers in the hospital or worse because of COVID-19," said Mike Maes, the president of the Pueblo Education Association.
News5 asked a representative of School District 60 if teachers would be given the option to either work remotely or return to the school. We were told teachers will return for in-person instruction.
Maes said another big concern is what could happen if a teacher is diagnosed with coronavirus. "What is that going to do to affect their sick leave? How is that going to be covered? Really, is that going to affect the whole building?" said Maes.
Maes also said it could add on to the teacher's workload to plan for both in-person instruction and remote learning. "As we get into how the planning is going to look, obviously, we're going to make sure that it's as simple as possible, to minimize the burden on teachers," said Maes.
Meanwhile, School District 70 has 22 different schools, with around 10,500 students. They are the largest geographical district in the state, and have been considering several questions about the fall, such as, "what grades wear masks? When do they wear masks? When do they not wear masks?What about staff? Do they wear masks, not wear masks?... Where are we going to take those temperature screenings? Where are we going to ask those screening questions? Where do they go once they're in the building? We know we can't let them gather in large groups in a cafeteria or commons area," said Todd Seip, the public information officer for School District 70.
Those with School District 70 said the day after they closed schools in March, they realized they would need plans for the fall semester. Now, they are hopeful to reopen their schools on Monday, August 17. "We know parents are anxious about what the plans are. We're anxious to finalize those plans. So, we hope in the next day or two that we get some state guidance and we can finish the next step," said Seip.
Seip said they put together different groups of teachers, parents, staff, administrators, school nurses, school psychologists, custodians, and their IT department to figure out what it would take to get kids back in school.
One group worked on what the delivery of instruction would look like, both remote and in-person. Another collaborated with the human resources department to see how many new teachers may need to be hired, and to figure out if there are teachers who will not be returning and how to help them with remote learning.
The IT department worked on how to better serve students remotely, and get a plan together for remote learning devices. Finally, the structure group has been examining what it will take to get students from their house to school.
Seip said they believe they could have elementary schools in-person by August 17, but bigger schools may have to use a hybrid model where students rotate in and out of the classroom. Students will have the opportunity to decide if they would prefer remote learning.
As Maes referenced, Seip said planning for a hybrid model is basically planning two different lessons. "You're trying to manage the kids in class and trying to think of what the kids at home may need, so it will be interesting. We are going to supply extra training for our teachers here in the next couple of weeks so they can get used to the new online delivery platforms. We don't want to have any extra work for them. We would like that whatever they're teaching in class is the same thing that gets taught online," said Seip.
Seip said one of the most contentious issues has been about wearing a mask. "We've heard from parents who won't sent their children back to school if they have to wear a mask, and we've from the other side that won't come to school if they can't wear a mask, and same thing with our staff," said Seip.
For the younger grades, Seip said their goal is to have them wear masks into the building, and then once they get into their classroom group, the students could potentially take off the masks.
School District 70 also sent out a survey to parents which will be finished by the end of this week. One of the questions on the survey was about transportation, which is still a work in progress. "One of the questions on our survey is does your student require transportation? It's about 75/25 right now. 25% will require transportation on a bus, 75% of our respondents have said they can get their students back another way. Now, we don't have every survey from every parent yet, so those numbers might not quite be accurate," said Seip.
Still, with 25% needing school buses, socially distancing will be challenging. "When we normally have 50 students on a bus as well, to only have 10 kids on a bus, we worked this out, or to have students sit six feet apart, some routes would have to run four times in order to get all of those kids to school. That would take our transportation budget up from $3 million dollars to $9 almost $10 million dollars if we were to do that," said Seip.
That's on top of a budget cut that just happened to the district. "Our budget was cut by 5% from the State of Colorado, that resulted in about a $3.8 million dollar deficit for us at our district level. We've been able to balance that with some transfer of funds, but we're still pretty thin. We've been riding pretty thin since 2008 when the last recession hit, and we've been battling back from there," said Seip.
District 70 will also start going into schools next week to set up practice rooms to see around how many students could be inside a room and how they would sit. "We'll put together videos for parents, some return to school videos, so students can see kind of what those classrooms will look like," said Seip.
The Association President for the Pueblo County Education Association is Amy Spock. She said they are the union representing all employees in School District 70. "Our teachers, also our staff, want to get back to work. They want to educate kids, that's their job, that's their passion, and that's very near and dear to their heart. But they're also very concerned with the way the virus seems to be tracking lately," said Spock.
Spock said a survey was sent out to staff, giving them the opportunity to report any health concerns about returning to in-person instruction.
She said School District 70 is one of the lowest funded districts in the state, getting about $600 less than School District 60 per student. "We're trying to do all of this essentially on a shoestring budget which brings up other fear, apprehension... I don't think anyone knows what the fall is going to look like, and that uncertainty is very difficult," said Spock.
Spock estimated if classrooms were socially distanced, they could fit around 10-12 students in a room. "Schools truly were built for socializing, not social distancing," said Spock.
She hopes students know they are doing everything they can to make the fall semester go smoothly. "We all care about you, and we're all going to continue to do the very best that we can, and we're excited to see you as soon as we can," said Spock.
Schools are still waiting on guidance from the state to learn exactly how many students will be allowed in a classroom, how far apart they need to be spaced, and how masks will be worn.
Find the latest on plans to return back to the classroom this fall in your child's district:
Fremont RE-1 (Cañon City Schools)
Fremont RE-3 (Cotopaxi)
Cheyenne Mountain D12
Colorado Springs School D11
Cripple Creek-Victor RE-1
Crowley County RE-1-J
Custer County C-1
East Otero R-1 (La Junta)
Fountain-Fort Carson D8
La Veta RE-2
Las Animas RE-1
Lewis Palmer D38
Manitou Springs D14
Pueblo City Schools D60
Pueblo County Schools D70
Rocky Ford R-2
Woodland Park RE-2