Denver-area schools aim to stay in-person but COVID-caused shortages cause disruptions

School districts in the Denver area stressed Wednesday that they are committed to keeping children in in-person classes despite the rapid rise of the omicron variant, but they are preparing for the surge to exacerbate staffing shortages – and potentially disrupt their plans to keep their buildings open.

The shortages, which have plagued schools since the 2021-22 school year began, are already worse than they were in the fall as more employees are becoming sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses, said district and teacher union officials.

“We are definitely making preparations for January to be a very challenging month in terms of staffing shortages,” said Abbe Smith, spokeswoman for Cherry Creek School District.

The district sent a letter to parents on Sunday warning that it could face staffing shortages that cause disruptions such as bus routes or schools’ ability to provide hot lunches.

A similar message was sent to parents of students at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, which said it’s possible schools or grade levels may temporarily move to virtual learning because of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Mike Ramirez, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said the district “is working very hard to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

The administrative offices for DPS are still working in person, however, the district has limited in-person meetings to keep numbers small and is offering an option for people to attend remotely, Ramirez said.

However, as of Wednesday, DPS, which returned from winter break on Tuesday, had 16 schools that already have a class, grade level, or entire building operating remotely temporarily. Four of those schools will return to in-person classes on Thursday, but another seven schools will either partially or entirely move to virtual learning as well, said spokesman Scott Pribble.

“We all support keeping schools open,” said Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “But there’s also this piece where we need more help to do that.”

He said he was told the district delivered KN95 masks to schools for staff and students on Wednesday. He also heard staff shortages were so bad at one DPS school this week that three classes were sent to the auditorium to watch a movie.

“I don’t know if we are really being as open and honest about how bad it is,” Gould said of the district.

Most of the shortages are being caused by employees (and students) becoming sick with COVID-19 or another illness, according to the district representatives. There were 275 Colorado schools with coronavirus outbreaks as of Wednesday, which is down from early December when there were 320 active outbreaks. However, the data is delayed.

Smith, with Cherry Creek Schools, said employees are also struggling to find COVID-19 tests.

Schools have struggled with a substitute teacher shortage for most of the school year and subs remain hesitant to come into buildings right now because they fear getting sick, said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association.

“We’re day one or day two in most districts of back to in-person learning and what we are seeing immediately is there are significant numbers of staff and students who are out right now,” she said. “It doesn’t take long for schools not to have enough people to keep schools open.”

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