By Tori Mason

DENVER (CBS4) – More students are getting back to their classrooms, as Denver Public Schools opens its middle and high school doors for the first time in months. Students are ready to learn amongst their friends, but the laptops they’ve grown close to will be joining them as well.

“I didn’t want to oversell it and say it’s going to be just like school was before, because it’s really not going to be,” said Mike Christoff, Principal of Thomas Jefferson High School. “All of the high schools are facing this challenge. How do we differentiate between in-person and online, when all of those kids are still in the same class?”

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According to DPS, 60% of families chose to return to in-person learning. However, learning “in person” has a new meaning as the city continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’ll be in the classroom with teachers, but the majority of the class will still be online,” said Christoff. “The kids will have to come to school with their Chromebooks or laptops. The virtual teaching now will be very similar to what it’s going to look like in the building.”

Christoff says only 45% of TJHS students opted for in-person learning. Like many DPS schools, these students will have a hybrid schedule.

They’ll spend three days at home, learning virtually, and two days in class, on computers.

Meanwhile, the majority of TJHS students will continue to learn remotely. Christoff says it’s important that in-person and remote instruction be equitable, especially since it’s a deadly virus that’s prompting many families to stay home.

“We’re responsible for all 30 kids in the classroom. If you have seven to 10 kids in front of you, you’re still responsible for the other 20 who are online. We can’t make it a lesser quality of education for the kids that are online versus the kids that are in person,” said Christoff.

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In addition to seeing classmates, Christoff says there’s still value in students coming to school twice a week. Connecting with teachers and social interaction is something many school-age children need to thrive.

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Those connections are why Hamilton Middle School principal, Dr. Christian Sawyer can’t wait to welcome students back.

“We have relationships with our students that we’ve built, but we’ve actually never met them in person,” said Sawyer “The students who we’ve gotten to know through our virtual classrooms have probably grown a foot since we’ve met them!”

Sawyer says about 50% of HMS students opted to return to in-person learning. These middle school students will be following a similar hybrid schedule, with in-person computer work, as TJHS.

While the cohort and safety guidelines have impacted the number of days students can be in the classroom, he says his teachers are prepared to keep classes moving forward.

“Those students will get to be there with their teacher, ask questions, build relationships in the classroom with their peers and get to access counseling support. They’re still getting some of those experiences that we know are so important for middle schoolers,” said Sawyer.

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Sawyer called HMS educators “geniuses,” saying teachers have spent the last year learning from each other to help them best meet the needs of their students. While it’s not the full in-person schedule they’d prefer, they’ve still spent months and months planning for this moment.

2020 was as much of a learning year for school staff as it was for students. Sawyer says he can’t speak highly enough about the school counselors, social workers, teachers and the rest of the HMS educational team who have worked to build relationships in these unprecedented circumstances.

“Our model will join the students who are in person, with their peers who are at home. All students are expected to be on their laptops, live and in class continuing in their learning with their teacher,” said Sawyer.

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Students who plan to return to class next week and have been using a desktop computer while remote learning should contact their schools if they need a laptop.

Tori Mason