MONUMENT, Colo. — As school systems around the country were battening down for their first remote start-of-school in the fall of 2020, the Lewis-Palmer district here was embarking on another kind of experiment: Elementary students would be in class full time, sitting maskless at communal tables. The band program would resume in-person classes, saxophonists and flutists playing a few feet apart. The high school football teams would practice and compete.
While most of the nation kept students at home for part or all of the last academic year, these schools in the suburbs of Colorado Springs, like thousands of others around the country, opened with the overwhelming majority of students in their seats. Masks were optional in elementary school. Although middle- and high-schoolers began with hybrid learning, in November, high school-aged students with significant special education needs were back in-person five days a week.
In the country’s largest school systems, such as those in New York City, Los Angeles, D.C. and Chicago, teacher unions and concerned parents fought plans to reopen. Public health officials warned that social distancing would save lives, and schools responded by devising hybrid programs or simply sticking with virtual learning. But, over time, these measures also imposed costs: Today, students are contending with significant learning loss and mental health issues.
Yet thousands of school districts — typically small ones in conservative-leaning counties — reacted to the pandemic like Lewis Palmer District 38 did. Officials in this largely White and affluent school district of 6,600 students near the U.S. Air Force Academy argue they took the right approach to reopening schools. No child was hospitalized with the virus; two school system employees were admitted, though contact tracers did not determine where they contracted the virus, school officials said.
And overall, results from standardized tests show that the average student in Lewis-Palmer made gains in reading. While they lost ground in math, they performed better than the average Coloradan. SAT scores remained steady.
Debate continues over which approach was the right one, and the circumstances in homogenous suburban districts differ from those in big cities. But the experience of systems like Lewis-Palmer offers evidence for those who say schools could have avoided some of the prolonged closures — and the serious academic and social impacts that came from them.
“We didn’t just exist through the pandemic,” said Mark Belcher, director of communications for the school district. “We made progress through the pandemic.”
The school district supported many early decisions with a July 2020 academic study that found that children under 10 didn’t transmit the virus at high rates, according to Superintendent K.C. Somers. The superintendent also saw early evidence emerging from Europe that showed it was possible to reopen schools with relatively few outbreaks.
To some in Lewis-Palmer, the district took a leap of faith when there were still big unknowns about how the virus spread — and got lucky that no one became gravely ill.
To others, the school system chased the right priorities, acted diligently and followed health guidelines, doing what was necessary to give the community what it wanted: open schools.
“With our kids being younger, the risk of social delays weighed heavily with us,” said Kim Rhinesmith, a mother of two who sent her two elementary-aged students back to in-person learning full time in Lewis-Palmer last fall.
Like most of the nation’s school districts, Lewis-Palmer 38 abruptly closed its school buildings and sent students home on March 13, 2020. They learned online for the remainder of the academic year, and teachers quickly saw many students’ progress slow. Children struggled with the coursework and felt depressed and anxious, educators say.
School system officials surveyed parents in July and determined that more than 60% said they were “very likely” to return to in-person learning. Fewer than 10% of families said they were “very unlikely” to return. More than 60% of teachers, who are not unionized, felt confident the school system could reopen schools safely; just 15% disagreed.
So Lewis-Palmer 38 decided to reopen. To craft its plan, local officials used health guidance put forth by the local health department in El Paso County. Case numbers there were far lower than the national averages in August 2020.
Still, the district took liberties. The El Paso Health Department, for example, “strongly encouraged” children 10 and younger to wear masks. Lewis-Palmer decided to require masks only in hallways for this age group, and it allowed them to go maskless in classrooms. Officials relied on a state constitution that gives school boards complete control over their schools.
“We wanted it to be as normal as possible, and children wearing masks is not normal,” said Chris Taylor, president of the Lewis-Palmer school board. “The focus of the board was to give parents as much choice as possible — and children could wear masks if they wanted.”
Lewis-Palmer didn’t entirely escape the COVID politics that engulfed school reopenings across the country. Some parents pleaded with the district for stricter mask requirements. Others posted signs that said “free the face” outside the school district’s high schools, where masks were required last academic year.
A few more teachers than usual quit or took early retirement because they didn’t want to return, school leaders said. At least one high school teacher quit because he refused to teach with a mask on, according to one principal. A few families reportedly fled to nearby school districts with mask mandates, though officials said they also had new families enroll in the district because of its looser COVID rules. And principals reported squabbles at pickup lines with parents who refused to follow masking requirements.
About 65% of eligible residents in El Paso County are fully vaccinated — on par with the state’s vaccination rate. But school officials, teachers and parents said people in the school district rarely discuss their immunization status. Vaccination is not required to participate in any activity.
“We felt it was an infringement on staff confidentiality to ask about their vaccination status,” Somers, the superintendent, said. “But we did encourage vaccines.”
Rick Frampton, executive director of student services who led the school system’s COVID response, said to manage the thorny politics he stuck with a consistent interpretation of the health guidance, not making exceptions or modifications for any school or family. When parents complained, he referred them to the El Paso County Health Department.
One student, he said, had to miss the final football game of his senior year because he was quarantined after a close contact at school tested positive for the virus. His father threatened to sue, but Frampton didn’t budge.
“We were dealing with a lot of disgruntled parents,” Frampton said.
The school district posted reported positive cases on its website. Officials said they found no evidence of large outbreaks in its school buildings. But some parents and teachers questioned those findings, arguing that because the district did not conduct any testing, many cases likely went undetected.
Some thought the school was insufficiently cautious. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this month determined that school districts with mask requirements experienced significantly fewer coronavirus cases than districts with mask-optional policies.
Angie Jones has a son with cystic fibrosis. Her son struggled with virtual learning. She wanted him to return to in-person learning last year, but his doctors said he couldn’t unless everyone was masked. She pleaded with the school to require his classmates to wear masks so her son could attend. But the school wouldn’t budge, she said. She kept her son and youngest daughter online, fearing they could bring the virus home.
“My child’s needs were not being met,” Jones said. “It felt like they didn’t care.”
When Michelle O’Neal relocated her daughters from Washington state to Colorado Springs in 2019 for her husband’s job, she wanted to find a school district in the region that would have a strong special education program for her second youngest daughter, a high-schooler with Down syndrome. Parents in online forums kept referring her to Palmer Ridge High.
The family found a house in Monument, Colo., and enrolled their three school-aged daughters in fall 2019. Janae O’Neal thrived. She took her academic courses in a special-ed classroom with other high-needs students and participated in electives such as ceramics and dance with the rest of her classmates.
But when schools shut down, Michelle O’Neal saw Janae regress in reading and math. The teenager also developed severe social anxiety and, when school reopened in August, she had panic attacks and threw up at the prospect of entering the building. The family sought help from mental health professionals.
Slowly she became more comfortable. By November, she and her special education classmates were in school full time. She regained her English and math skills, O’Neal said. Now she has a boyfriend, attended the schoolwide dance and loves to dance in front of her whole class.
During that 2020-2021 school year, the Washington state district where the family previously lived never fully reopened to high-schoolers.
“She needed to go back,” O’Neal said. “Staying home, her anxiety was only going to get worse.”
More than 7 million students are eligible for special educational services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These children follow an individualized education program that lays out what services or attention they must receive. School districts across the county, including Lewis-Palmer, conceded they failed these children during virtual learning in the pandemic, and many of them fell further behind than their classmates, with some families reporting their children lost skills needed for an independent life.
In Lewis-Palmer, elementary students with special education plans made improvements in English and math, showing greater growth than the average special education student in Colorado.
Brandy Doan, special education teacher at Palmer Ridge High, said her high school students were learning independent living skills and rebounded from losses during virtual learning.
“Everyone who regressed has already recouped the skills they lost,” Doan said.
Districtwide, Lewis-Palmer has always been a high-achieving school district, performing around the 80th percentile of school districts across the nation in English and math, according to results from a national standardized exam.
That didn’t appear to change much during the pandemic.
But the results are hardly definitive. Participation in the tests was lower across the state, particularly among students from low-income families.
Still, early results are promising.
In third-grade reading — a critical year — 60.2% of Lewis-Palmer students were considered proficient in reading in 2021, up from 58.2% in 2019. During that same time, Colorado proficiency rates dropped from 41.3 to 39.1%.
The school district made even bigger gains in fifth grade. Nearly 75% of fifth graders were considered proficient in reading in 2021, up six percentage points from 2019. Colorado state dropped 1.2% points during that time.
Nationwide, a McKinsey & Co. study found schools with majority-Black populations were five months behind pre-pandemic levels, compared with majority-White schools, which were two months behind.
Similar dynamics played out here. In Lewis-Palmer, minority students didn’t perform as well as their White peers on a state exam, according to data provided by the school system. Students who qualified for free and reduced lunch — around 10% of the population — performed better than the average Colorado student in the same income level, though lagged behind their wealthier peers in the district.
“The results show that at the most broad levels, our kids continued learning,” Somers said. “But we have more work to do on how our most marginalized students are learning — and that was true before the pandemic.”
Even though schools here opened, the 85% of students who opted for in-person learning in fall 2020 were still out for stretches of the academic year. When the region experienced a surge of cases in November 2020, officials shut down middle and high schools through winter break, switching these students to virtual learning. Students returned to classes on a hybrid schedule in January and were back full time in March 2021.
And the district quarantined entire classrooms when someone in the room tested positive for the virus. Last academic year, it recorded nearly 8,000 quarantines.
Macy Sienkowski, 11, was out this way for more than 60 days. Her parents, employees for the school system, were working in-person so she was unsupervised during virtual learning. She said she and her friends would often chat online during virtual learning and concedes she didn’t learn as much as she would have had she been in school.
District leaders said few students tested positive while quarantined and they decided to stop contact tracing this academic year. Students no longer have to quarantine if someone in their class tests positive.
“We were never in the same routine,” Macy said. “And then it would take a while to get used to going back to school, and once we did, we got quarantined again.”
Still, many said the year felt remarkably normal. Christine Thomas — a kindergarten teacher and president of the district’s teacher advocacy group, Lewis Palmer Education Association — said she believes last year’s kindergartners left prepared for first grade.
When she returned to the classroom in fall 2020, she tried to space her students and keep them from getting too close when they played with each other. But she realized that wasn’t feasible, and students didn’t appear to be getting sick. So, she let them play with each other on the classroom carpet with no restrictions.
Giving teachers that freedom in classrooms was intentional, school leaders said. They didn’t have the funds to redesign classroom with new spaced-out furniture — and they didn’t want classrooms to feel different from a standard year. So long as teachers and students showed up, they wanted their schools to feel normal.
“Elementary students had close to a typical year last year,” Frampton said. “Some kids are still struggling, but a pandemic is going to be hard on everyone.”