Poudre School District: Cancel the plan to return to fully in person learning

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On February 25th Poudre School District announced plans to move all schools into a Phase 4 fully in-person learning model after Spring Break. This plan presents unnecessary hazards, does not address considerable risks and complications, and does not offer the advantages it may appear to. 

The district’s new plan would have students returning immediately after spring break. This presents a timing issue when paired with the fact that many students will be traveling over the break and will be exposed to the virus. Due to the incubation period of the virus, most of these students will have no knowledge that they are infected until a week or two after they return from vacation. The district will therefore have no knowledge of any new cases and will be unable to properly quarantine and contact-trace these individuals. District officials, including the Interim Superintendent Todd Lambert and Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Scott Nielsen, claim that returning to school after a break has not shown a spike in cases in the past, however this claim is unfounded since we have never returned to an in person learning setting following a school break. After Thanksgiving we returned to remote learning and after Christmas we were still in remote learning for several weeks before going into Phase 3. PSD is misusing their data in an attempt to substantiate policies that cannot be properly justified. Claiming that holidays show no spike in cases while having no in-house data to back up this claim is not only a disingenuous use of statistics, but is also a dangerous manipulation of public favor. 

Additionally, by the district’s own admission, the fundamental structure of Phase 4 learning makes proper social distancing protocols impossible. In the district’s description of the Phase 4 model, they openly admit that it will be “difficult to maintain social distancing.” This is a gross understatement. Most of the high schools in the district are hundreds of students over capacity. In the year prior to the Covid shutdown, many students reported having classes where if everyone showed up to class there were not enough chairs for everyone to sit in. Photographs from this same year show students packed shoulder to shoulder in the hallways. Even before the pandemic, this situation presented a significant safety hazard. During the pandemic it would present an outright nightmare. Proper distancing of six feet between students would not be possible under this model, and in many classrooms even three feet of space would be impossible. Under such a system, our contact tracing infrastructure would collapse. Currently at Poudre High School alone there are 250 people (13% of the school) learning from home under mandatory Covid evaluation periods. Without social distancing, this number will skyrocket and an even greater number of students will be put in mandatory quarantine periods. The health department considers any student within 6 feet of a positive case for more than 15 minutes to be a close contact who must quarantine while under evaluation. If students aren't able to properly social distance, the number of students under mandatory quarantine will increase.

In addition to the issue of overcrowding, the district has also failed to address numerous other issues associated with in person learning. PSD has disregarded how their actions as a leadership organization affect the decisions of the community. Among many students and families, the assumption is that if they are attending school in person it must be fine for them to hang out with their friends outside school. In this way, the district’s decisions not only affect the PSD community but the Fort Collins community as a whole. 

The district has also failed to address issues associated with improper mask wearing. PSD has released no guidelines on how school staff and administration are to enforce mask wearing. Unfortunately, this burden has fallen on teachers and coaches who do not have the time or authority to properly enforce such rules and have already had too much asked of them during these times. As a result, proper masking goes relatively unenforced by no fault of the teachers. One photograph of the PHS wrestling team posted to their website shows five students wearing their masks below their noses and two other students who have masks poorly photoshopped onto their faces. Those who saw the photograph before it was photoshopped by the administration at PHS report that these two students were not wearing masks at all. Unfortunately, this picture is not a misrepresentation of how mask wearing is being treated around the district. Many students do not wear their masks correctly or wear an improper mask. The CDC is currently recommending double layered cloth masks as the baseline, however PSD has made no rules or regulations on what kind of masks students should wear. Especially with the more infectious variants of this virus becoming more prevalent across the country, proper masking is vital and the district’s oversight on this issue is dangerous to students, staff, and their families. 

CDC guidelines state that it would be safe for students to return to in person learning with proper social distancing and mask wearing. The district openly admits that maintaining social distancing will be difficult in Phase 4. In fact,in many classrooms it will be impossible to maintain six, or even three feet of distance between students. Even at half capacity, many classrooms are unable to follow proper distancing guidelines. This situation does not describe proper social distancing as outlined by the CDC, and therefore this system would not fall under their claim that in person learning is safe. Additionally, since many students do not wear their masks properly and/or do not wear proper masks the CDC’s claim would once again be inapplicable to PSD.

There are also numerous equity issues created by a return to Phase 4. Namely, the district claims that students who would prefer to stay home will still have the option to do so. However, they have also expressly told teachers to “advantage students who show up to in person class.” They have proposed doing this by not running classes in the virtual meeting model that teachers have used all year and instead switching to a broadcast model where students would be unable to interact with the class and would instead be watching it like a video. This not only disadvantages students who choose to stay home, but also disadvantages students who are quarantined. Especially considering that minority groups are less likely to have access to a vaccine and more likely to be exposed to the virus, this policy would grossly disadvantage them. PSD claims to strive to “educate every child every day” and yet they ask their students to choose between their safety, their families safety, and an inclusive education. 

This plan is not only dangerous, but will also be more disruptive than helpful to the school year. Even under the most recent Phase 3 model, many schools approached the case threshold determined by the district to constitute a shutdown. If another shutdown were issued so close to the end of the school year as a result of the shift to Phase 4, it would have a much more disruptive effect than simply staying in a Phase 3 model.

In addition to all the other substantive objections to the Phase 4 model, the simple truth is this: students are not comfortable returning to school in such a model. Whether students feel safe is almost as important as whether they are safe, and in this model many students would neither be safe nor feel safe. There are certainly mental health issues related to hybrid and remote models, but the district has failed to consider the mental health issues raised by sending students back to school in a setting they do not feel safe in. Up to this point, PSD has frequently ignored student voices and failed to address student petitions, comments at board meetings, and other forms of student input.

Poudre School District has failed to properly consider and plan for the complications and risks of returning to school in a fully in person model. In these times we look to our leaders to make decisions that hold our lives in proper value in face of these risks, to encourage behavior that will make the world as safe as possible for the most vulnerable of us, and to act as an example of how to act responsibly. The district’s Phase 4 plan does none of these things. 

Poudre School District, Todd Lambert, and Scott Nielson, on behalf of the students and community members who have signed this petition, please make the moral decision and cancel the plan to move secondary schools into Phase 4 in favor of spending the rest of the year in the Phase 3 model which has been proven to be an adaptable, functional compromise.