Earlier this summer, a rising sophomore shared a story that stuck with Dr. Alex Marrero. Despite entering her second year of high school, the young lady had never set foot in the building as a freshman because of the pandemic. She was concerned. Would it be difficult to navigate the unfamiliar campus when she finally started attending classes? And what would it be like to have a whole new batch of teachers after feeling somewhat unfamiliar with the ones she had last year?

For Marrero, the girl’s unease illustrated the unique challenges that will be associated with the return to widespread in-person learning this fall. “Our role will go well beyond the scope of a traditional school year,” says Marrero, who was announced as the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools earlier this summer after serving as the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the City School District of New Rochelle in New York. “It’s going to be about really getting to know each student and finding out where they are at emotionally.”

That will not be an easy task, especially with the Delta variant causing a surge in COVID-19 cases and vaccine rates remaining low among youth. But Marrero is hopeful the excitement about schools being fully reopened will help students and school staff tackle the challenges ahead. Here, he talked with 5280 about how he plans to lead Denver Public Schools through what promises to be an uncertain school year.

(Read more: It’s Been One Year Since Students Started Widespread Distance Learning)

5280: You are on the verge of starting your first year running the largest school district in Colorado. How are you feeling?
Dr. Alex Marrero: I am super pumped. This is my first opportunity to launch and be a part of this community. It’s also exciting that we are launching with something that looks somewhat like what we have grown accustomed to, meeting in person.

Yes, we have to wear masks. But we are going to be elbow to elbow as much as we can. Things are getting tense again with the variant: the rates going up, we are universally masking, and we’re functioning under the city’s mandate to get folks vaccinated. But it also looks as if—and maybe this is just me being optimistic because I am not a scientist—we are really heading toward a place where we are going to get back to “normalcy.” I am using loose quotes there.

You mentioned the Delta variant surging. I am wondering what the district’s decision-making framework will look like for dealing with COVID-19? Who will be a part of monitoring that and adjusting how you all move through the school year?
So many folks will be helping make those decisions. I would like to stress that health and safety will be our top priority no matter what. It is interesting. I think we always taught school leaders that the first priority is to make sure our students are learning and engaged. We took for granted, as a nation, the true top priority, which is the health and safety and security of our students. The pandemic has made us revisit that idea. Decisions are always informed by the public and parents, and we will rely on the recommendations of our health professionals. We consult with a number of people including Bob McDonald [Executive Director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment].

I know there will be a mask mandate for Denver Public Schools. But what other COVID-19 precautions will be in place?
So, we are really focused on having a full uninterrupted year of in-person learning. And also accelerating that learning to make up for the lost time during the past 18 months. Our health partners are recommending masking plus vaccinations to make sure schools stay open. Whenever possible, we will recommend social distancing as well.

Just because we can go elbow to elbow, like I mentioned, doesn’t mean that we are going to squeeze everyone in unnecessarily. It will be a huge disappointment if we have to close schools, which is still on the table. I don’t want anyone to think that is off the table. But we want that to be a far reach, something that only happens if we have a true, true spike or a tragedy that is unforeseen—not because of effort or lack of precaution.

Mayor Michael Hancock said that everyone who works in a school in Denver will be required to get a vaccine by September 30. Were you involved in the decision to have a mandate for schools? And what will happen to folks who don’t get vaccinated?
At the time of the announcement, I was trying to figure out if we were going to have a masking mandate. I was trying to see if they were going to issue a public health order because we were really under pressure in terms of masking. Through that inquiry, I learned [the city] was going to go a different route with vaccinations. I found out about 48 hours prior to the announcement.

This is not a knock on the city, but the one lingering question I still have is what happens in terms of those who refuse to get vaccinated? What happens on October 1? Are folks really expected to get terminated? There is always the question of religious exemptions and medical exemptions. And I hope we are able to manage our own system. Those nuances are still being worked out.

Still, I support the effort. I understand why it’s happening now in terms of where we are at [on a local level].

A lot has been made about the amount of learning that didn’t happen last year. How do you all plan to assess where kids are at, and what is the plan to make up learning deficits from there?
It is difficult to know until we reengage, right? We can plan, plan, plan, but we need to see our students and find out where they are at, well beyond academics—in terms of where they are socially, emotionally, and mentally. Once we reengage, we’re going to get into really assessing our students, but not just testing them. Of course, there will be some traditional assessments that will happen at the end of the unit or the end of year. But more than anything, we want to assess their well-being. A lot of what we do will be beyond the scope of testing.

What have your conversations been like with teachers? What are you hearing from them about the return to school?
I see a lot of folks really excited to get back to normal in-person school. I see a lot of energy. The new hires, I see a lot of passion in their eyes. And I say “the eyes” because that is all you see because of the masks. With the veterans, I feel the excitement even more so. [Remote learning] has been so taxing at all levels for them. While there is some angst about the unknown, I think the vaccinations add an extra support. And universal masking has also been well supported. But overall, all of us are overwhelmingly excited to reengage.

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.