Denver Public Schools shuts down classes over ‘severe weather and severe staffing shortages’

Today’s not just a snow day.

A snowy day over Garfield Lake in Mar Lee. Jan. 5, 2022.

A snowy day over Garfield Lake in Mar Lee. Jan. 5, 2022.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
kyle harris

On Wednesday night, at 11:01 p.m., the phones of Denver Public Schools families blew up with a text message: “All DPS schools and administrative officers are closed tomorrow 01/06/2022, due to severe weather.”

An email the district sent out to families less than an hour later told a different story. The few inches of snow and the low temps aren’t the only culprit today.

“Due to severe weather and continued severe staffing shortages, all DPS schools (including Emily Griffith Technical College and all administrative offices) are closed Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Staffing shortages continue to be particularly severe on our bus routes, which can cause significant delays on the routes. Given the frigid temperatures, we feel this is the best decision for student safety. All school-related events and activities are also canceled for the safety of our students and staff members.” (Charter schools can set their own policies about whether or not to be open today because of the weather.)

Currently, 16 schools citywide have been forced to go remote, according to the latest from the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. There are 221 positive COVID cases among students and 143 among teachers.

With the omicron variant of COVID-19 battering the state, case numbers are at an all-time high in Denver and one in four people testing positive, educators, students and families are on edge about whether another district-wide shutdown or school closures are on the horizon.

Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said at a press conference Tuesday that officials weren’t considering moving classes remote, and Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers’ union, told us educators strongly oppose going remote.

“We are currently working the issue to make sure that we maintain safety for everyone,” Gould wrote in an email. “Educators do not want to move to a remote setting unless they absolutely have to. That said the current surge and labor shortage is making conditions impossible for our students and educators. We are working with our Union leadership to determine the right course of action.”

The staffing shortage is not exactly new.

In October, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero sent out a video to families, noting, “Like school districts across the country, we are right now faced with a severe guest- and substitute-teacher shortage that is impacting the classroom experience for students across the district.”

He asked non-teachers working for the district to step into the classroom as substitutes and paraprofessionals.

“I’m also hoping that there are families and community members out there who are willing and able to help in our schools,” he said. “If you’d be interested in working for DPS as a substitute teacher or a paraprofessional, please contact today.”

So is today’s day of canceled classes the first of many — even if there isn’t bad weather to blame?

Denver Public Schools note to parents was inconclusive about whether to expect closures on Friday and beyond.

“We will continue to monitor the weather and announce any further updates on the DPS website and our social media channels,” the district stated.

Denver Public Schools senior leadership is meeting Thursday morning to discuss weather closures, staffing issues and more and whether today’s closure is a one-off incident, said DPS spokesperson Will Jones.

Local pediatric experts really want the schools to stay open, arguing keeping schools open for in person learning is critical for children’s mental health.

At the Tuesday press conference, Children’s Hospital Colorado‘s Chief Medical Officer David Brumbaugh cautioned that the City of Denver should do whatever it could to keep schools open and running in-person, even as hospital capacity is stretched thin. (Currently, the metro area has just 8% of ICU beds available and 4% of acute care beds available, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.)

Brumbaugh noted the severe impact closures have on youth mental health and learning.

“Masks and vaccines are proven tools in stopping respiratory viruses, but they also help to keep our schools open,” he said. “And we know that prevention of outbreaks of COVID in schools are critical for keeping our kids in school and keeping them healthy.”

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