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COVID caution sign goes up on Roaring Fork Schools’ classroom return plan

Natasha Walker decided to put a face to the concerns around the potential spread of COVID-19 in the schools when she logged on to the special Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education meeting Wednesday night.

Earlier this week, the Early Childhood Learning Center preschool based at Basalt Elementary School was forced to close after two staff members there tested positive for COVID-19, and another was showing symptoms.

Walker was one of those preschool teachers who tested positive.

“I’m here to put a face to the statistics,” Walker said, adding that two weeks after preschool students were allowed to return to the building, she and her own two older children tested positive.

“This came on the tail end of the (Labor Day) holiday weekend, after I unknowingly brought the COVID virus to my 86-year-old mother in Colorado Springs. She’s now hospitalized,” Walker said.

“We are not just a statistic. We are people with flesh and blood and stories,” she said.

With that, and a chorus of concerns expressed by dozens of teachers during the board session, it’s back to October, at the very earliest, for the school district to get its youngest students back in the classroom.

Most of that shift in direction from another lengthy and sometimes contentious meeting on Sept. 9 has to do with a recent new uptick in the COVID-19 case rate within the district.

The school board had hoped to hear a plan Wednesday for kindergarten- through third-grade students to move from online distance learning to school buildings for in-person classroom instruction starting Sept. 28.

Instead — bolstered by newly revised data and input from local public health officials — the board backed away from committing to or pushing for any specific dates for that return.

“This is a lot different than what we originally thought we would be looking at this week,” board President Jen Rupert said.

She echoed other board members who noted that the direction they gave last week for district staff to fast-track the return was based on more encouraging statistics related to COVID-19 at that time.

A plan was presented to the board during a 5-and-a-half-hour-long videoconference meeting Wednesday, including more than two hours of public comments.

However, it will rely on a data metrics system now being used by the state to determine the safety level for certain activities, such as in-person schooling, to resume or continue.

Just in the last week, those metrics have changed.

The new “COVID Dial” being used by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — measuring the two-week case rate per 100,000 people, test positivity rate and daily hospitalization rate — puts Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, all three, in the “Concern” Level 2.

Last week, the tri-county area was comfortably in the “Cautious” Level 1 range, based on those three primary measures.

Not particularly unexpected was a surge in the rate of new coronavirus cases and a spike in the test positivity rate following the Labor Day weekend.

In Garfield County alone, the case rate per 100,000 people rose from 53.3 last Friday to 93.2 as of Wednesday. The test positivity rate went from less than 4% to 5.1%.

Under the plan presented Wednesday, for the Roaring Fork Schools to consider returning students to the classroom, even at the younger grade levels, it would need to be at Level 1 for two straight weeks.

That means a consistent test positivity rate of 5% or less, a case rate of less than 75 cases per 100,000, and no more than two new COVID-19 hospital admissions per day. For now, only the latter metric puts the three local counties at Level 1.

High school students would not return to in-person classes until the state’s least-restrictive Protect Our Neighbors level is achieved. Only five counties in the entire state — Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Gunnison and Gilpin — have kept their infection rate low enough to be in that category.

The school board’s backtracking Wednesday was punctuated by comments from dozens of teachers who said they do not believe it’s a good idea to fast-track a return to the classroom without more time to implement the plan.

“We need a plan. Let’s do it right, and let’s do it slowly,” said Carbondale teacher Danny Stone.

Michelle Weaver, a new teacher at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs, said she’s concerned about returning to the classroom because her own child is at higher risk for contracting the disease due to a birth defect.

“I don’t see what the rush is,” she said. “We need to prioritize safety over urgency.”


Community transmission rate a roadblock for Aspen schools

The unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 on youth as well as a 40% rate of community transmission are two of the main reasons why the Aspen middle and high schools remain closed to in-person learning, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist said Wednesday.

The bigger concern isn’t about an outbreak at the schools, but “it’s the kids getting infected. What are the long-term effects?” epidemiologist Josh Vance said during a Zoom conference presented by the Aspen School District and Aspen Family Connections.

Longer-term symptoms with youth “remains unknown,” un.org reported Tuesday, and Vance said there’s just not enough completed research into the effects of a virus that hasn’t been around for one year.

The other factor keeping schools closed is community transmission, which is when the original source of a virus spread cannot be identified. Pitkin County’s rate is 40% whereas a safe level for opening schools is between 5% and 10%, he said.

“If we reduce transmission in the community, I know we will feel better about the schools opening,” Vance said.

The ASD also has a task force working on a reopening plan and “how it is going to occur and when it is going to occur,” Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry said.

The principals of the elementary, middle and high schools are scheduled to present their reopenings at Monday’s board of education meeting.

The decision to open the schools ultimately rests with Superintendent David Baugh, Mulberry said, noting that call will be informed by local and state health recommendations.

Not all of the school district is closed.

The K-8 Aspen Community School in Woody Creek is open to in-person classes, the Cottage preschool re-opened after closing due to an infected student, and Aspen Elementary School debuted its hybrid model Sept. 8. Under that system, one cohort of students attends classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Friday. Wednesday is set aside for teacher planning.

Middle and high school students began remote learning the last week of August.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s color-coded dial dashboard that debuted this week classified Pitkin County on Wednesday as “Safer Level 2: Concern,” under which metric the state suggests K-12 public schools use “in-person, hybrid or remote as appropriate.”

Counties in that Safe Level 2 zone have a COVID-19 incidence rate of 75 to 175 cases per 100,000 residents. Pitkin County’s rate was 78.8, keeping it shy of “Safer Level 1: Cautious.” Under that level, the CDHE says “in-person suggested, or hybrid, remote as appropriate.”

The CDHE recommends in-person learning when counties are in the “Protect Our Neighbors” category. Five of Colorado’s 64 counties — Gilpin, Gunnison, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco — were in that zone Wednesday.


Former Basalt teacher sentenced to 90 days in jail, probation in sexual assault case

A former choir teacher at Basalt High School was sentenced Wednesday to 90 days in Garfield County Jail and an undetermined time on probation for a sexual relationship with a male student.

Brittany von Stein, 27, was ordered to report to jail at 6 p.m. Wednesday. She will get credit for one day of time previously served.

After she is released from jail this fall, she will spend at least 10 years and possibly her entire life on probation, said Garfield County District Judge James Boyd. She must also serve 500 hours of useful public service.

He ruled she must register as a sex offender and undergo therapy. She was also ordered to pay $3,235.11 in restitution, though the nature of the expense wasn’t clear in the hearing.

Von Stein’s attorney, Michael Fox, sought a sentence for probation without incarceration. Zac Parsons, an assistant district attorney with the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, sought a prison sentence. Boyd settled on a combination after a two-hour hearing Wednesday.

“Ms. von Stein, this is the kind of case, because of its seriousness, that one could view the sentence as a close call, the choice between probation and prison,” Boyd said. “I mention that only to emphasize that you need to very careful. This is a very long probation and you need to be very careful that you follow all of its requirements. If for some reason you would have to come back before the court, the outcome might be very, very different. I hope you find a way to use the talents you have in positive ways and to eliminate the negative ways you have used them in the past.”

Von Stein pleaded guilty in July to one count of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust, a class four felony. Four counts of sexual assault on a child showing a pattern were dismissed.

Testimony during court appearances showed von Stein had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student who attended Basalt High School. The encounters occurred at her apartment in Carbondale, so she was charged in Garfield County District Court. Basalt High School is located in Eagle County.

The court hearing was held by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic. The victim and his family didn’t speak. Von Stein spoke and offered an apology. She said she accepted full responsibility without excuses.

“As a result of my conduct, I created a victim,” she said.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center closes after staffers test positive for COVID-19

Two Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and another is showing symptoms, prompting its closure until Sept. 28, the school district said Monday night.

“Because of this situation, the Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center will be short-staffed and will temporarily close until Sept. 28 during the 14-day quarantine period,” a news release from Roaring Fork School District states.

In addition to the three who have tested positive or are showing symptoms, eight staff members are quarantining, said Kelsy Been, Roaring Fork School District’s public information officer.

Out of 31 students attending, 12 are being quarantined. The remaining 19 were in a different cohort; Been said they would have been allowed to continue attending if it were not for the staffing shortage.

Pitkin and Garfield counties’ public health departments are coordinating the follow-up, Been said.

“The Roaring Fork Schools are working closely with Public Health and have contacted all students and staff who had close contact with those individuals,” the release states. “The district cannot divulge names to protect patient confidentiality.”

This is the second instance of multiple people testing positive for COVID-19 on the Basalt Elementary School grounds. Three counselors at a day care center based at the elementary school tested positive for COVID-19 during the summer.

In Aspen, the Cottage Preschool temporarily closed Aug. 28 after a student tested positive. The entire preschool, which is on the Aspen School District campus and provides day care for children of faculty and staff, as well as the public, reopened Sept. 8. It originally opened for the fall semester Aug. 19.

More recently, more than 100 students and staff members were asked to quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 at Coal Ridge High School in Garfield Re-2 School District. Most classes at that school were temporarily moved to remote instruction.

Aspen School District lines up moving parts to re-open

With its students spread across three buildings, the Aspen Elementary School has had nearly the entire public school campus to itself since class started the Tuesday after Labor Day.

AES is serving as a testing ground of sorts for the district — its smaller K-8 Aspen Community School in Woody Creek also is open to in-person learning — whose leaders are trying to figure out how to open the campus to its entire enrollment of more than 1,600.

“Obviously when the high school and middle school open, we need to return to this space (the elementary school) or an alternative space if was deemed to be better for teaching,” Principal Chris Basten told members of the board of education at its meeting Thursday. “There are still some moving pieces, but we can move pretty quickly.”

Board members want the schools prepared to open as soon as possible. At last week’s meeting, they directed leadership at the Aspen School District to have a road map for reopening all of the public schools ready by the next board meeting, scheduled Sept. 21.

Board member Katy Frisch was the most vocal about the district’s establishing a plan.

“I feel the need to express a deadline for this so that when we do get to the point that we’re able to go back, it’s not going to take us a month,” Frisch said, “that we have a plan in place and the plan might be in stages, might not, I don’t know, but the plan needs to have an endgame of how do we get everybody in school, full-time?”

She added: “By the next board meeting, I’d like to see a plan for the full district for going back in-person, full-time and how we get there, and what exactly needs to happen to get there. And I want that shared with the parents, because it needs to be a community public document that everybody can look at so we can understand where we are.”

School district administrators said they will have a plan ready by the next board meeting. There is no easy fix, Superintendent David Baugh said.

“Any time you move a piece in the puzzle, it has massive implications across the organization,” he said.

While middle and high school students are learning remotely full-time, the elementary school currently is using a two-cohort system in which one group of the school’s students attend class in-person Mondays and Tuesdays, the other Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are used as a teacher planning day.

Students in kindergarten through the second grade take class in the elementary school, the third-graders occupy a wing of the middle school, and the fourth-graders use five classrooms in the high school. Students and teachers in their classes must stay within their groups throughout the day; they distinguish themselves outdoors by wearing colors specific to their classes.

ASD staff and teachers’ children also have been participating in a supervised learning program on the campus, with elementary school students in the high school gym and middle-schoolers in the Skier Dome.

“It’s basically a place where they can do their online learning, and they have some support there,” said Susan Marolt, board president.

Those students do not receive class instruction.

“What we have is a supervised learning environment so their parents can be available to teach,” said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.

Frisch, however, said those types of arrangements create an uneven playing field for the student body. She also noted that while some parents have the means to put their children in private-learning or instructional pods while there is limited in-person learning, others do not. That is another reason to start classes district-wide as soon as possible, she said.

“My biggest concern about all of this is the disequity,” Frisch said. “We have teachers’ kids who are supervised, we have parents who have the means to put their kids in pods and do all sorts of other things, and kids who don’t come from families with financial support can be the losers in this. And that’s why we need to get them back in school.”

School principals said among the issues that need sorting out include having adequate janitorial services, setting up bus schedules for all of the schools; and establishing class schedules, sizes and hybrid learning models, for example. Teachers also have expressed concern about having a safe instructional environment.

“One, is the elementary school able to get back to the elementary school?” asked high school Principal Sarah Strassburger. “That would be the first thing, obviously, because we do need all the rooms. The second consideration that we need to talk about is buses.”

One of multiple scenarios is starting secondary and high school at 9 a.m. and the elementary school at 8 a.m., allowing more time between bus routes and time to disinfect the buses.

Trepidation over the risk of surface exposure to the coronavirus, however, has lessened as more information comes out that COVID-19 mainly spreads through respiratory droplets in the air.

“Definitely still the primary risk, at least in what I’ve been experiencing, is people being in enclosed spaces for an extended time with people who have it,” said board member Jonathan Nickell.

Strassburger said, “I think we have debunked a lot of the surface transmission. But I do think there are people that are just concerned about the number of students who would be moving through a room at the high school. … It’s an added layer of protection but I agree, I don’t think that’s going to be the linchpin of everyone’s safety.”

A recent survey the high school conducted showed 42% of parents to be “very happy” with the quality of remote learning, another 40% “somewhat happy,” and another “16% not happy with quality of remote learning so far,” according to Strassburger.

For the time being, tweaks in the high schedule are coming, Strassburger said, such as extending breaks between sessions and having an early-release day to align with the elementary and middle schools.

The high school is in the process of making the Zoom platform its go-to medium for online learning.

“I’m about to make a mandate that we move to Zoom,” Strassburger said, noting “it’s far more effective instructionally.”

Likewise, middle school Principal Elizabeth Meador said the online experience is showing Zoom to be the preferred method.

“We’re three weeks in and we found I think every flaw that Google Meet can throw at us, “Meador said. “We are encouraging teachers to use Zoom when they have break-out groups with kids. We’re learning that each of those kinds of meetings have specific niches and it’s been, I think, a good learning process.”

As offseason starts to settle in, Nickell said he would expect numbers to drop locally. Pitkin County’s Coronameter was in the “cautious, moderate risk” zone as of Friday.

“Just by the sheer drop in people coming in and out of community, we’re going to have a natural control there as long as we don’t have a breakout,” said Nickell, adding that “we should plan on these things getting better just based on that natural dynamic.”


School board directs Roaring Fork Schools to implement in-person instruction for K-3 by Sept. 28

The Roaring Fork School Board moved to get kindergarten through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28.

The decision came after nearly four hours of presentation, public comment and board discussion Wednesday evening.

During public comment, the mental health of students and families came up as a serious and overlooked problem with distance learning.

Stein presentation

Superintendent Rob Stein opened this part of the board meeting with a nearly half-hour presentation explaining the district’s decision-making process on when to open back up to in-person learning.

He said the district’s three counties — Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — use different data for their coronameters, hampering the ability to make decisions on consistent criteria.

The state is coming out with its own coronameter, called the dial, that will solve that inconsistency, but for now the district has cobbled together metrics from various sources.

One is the Harvard Global Health Institute, which recommends waiting to open schools until the COVID incidence rate is below 25 new cases per 100,000 people (which would equal 15 cases for Garfield County) over a two-week period.

This was the main sticking point when the district announced on Tuesday that in-person learning would be delayed to at least Oct. 5. At that time the incidence rate was 68.3.

The other of the nine metrics that was not met was having air quality measures in place.

Roaring Fork Schools COO Jeff Gatlin said there was a shipping delay on air filters but that they should be installed soon and would not create a stumbling block to opening for instruction.

Stein said that kindergartners through third-graders would go back to school first for three reasons.

“Those are the ones that are hardest to teach in a distance learning environment, they’re the kids whose developmental needs are the most pressing,” and they’re the group least susceptible to infection and least likely to transmit the virus, Stein said.

Stein concluded his presentation with four options: adhere to protective measures to lower infection rates; choose other metrics to determine opening; rush the timeline; and revisit the guiding principles the board established in May.

Public comment

All 23 speakers during public comment, which took a little over an hour, were in favor of getting students back in school.

Rachel Hahn was “shocked” that mental health was not mentioned as a deciding factor. She said the district is protecting adults at the sake of the mental health of children.

Amy Kaufman, a teacher at Basalt Middle School, said that considering their unique needs and lower COVID risk the younger students could have a different decision-making pathway than the older kids.

Anika Neal from Glenwood, a kindergarten teacher at Sopris Elementary School, asked why all other local districts are back to in-person learning but not Roaring Fork. As a teacher, she said she’s trained to do what’s in children’s best interest, and distance learning is a disservice to students.

Mary Moon, who has children at Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School, said no solutions have been offered for the technology problems she’s been facing, and her children are getting an inadequate education.

Valley View physician Chris George, a Crystal River Elementary School parent, said the data does not support distance learning, especially when seven of the nine metrics have been met.

Betsy After, with a Crystal River Elementary School kindergartner, said the board is in charge and staff should report to the board.

Brion After, Betsy’s husband, said that distance learning is expanding the racial divide in the community. He also said that opening his business, Independence Run and Hike, during a pandemic was difficult at first, but he learned how to make it work, suggesting the same principle would work at the schools.

Roaring Fork High School student Annabelle Stableford said she can see how the ineffectiveness of distance learning will affect her future.

Board discussion

At the beginning of nearly two hours of discussion board member Natalie Torres said that despite the speakers’ united front, there are families that don’t want to return to in-person learning.

Board member Jennifer Scherer said that there are families of 5,000 students in the district, leaving a lot of opinions unknown.

In regard to the board being in charge, Scherer said, “We aren’t the experts; we hire the experts, and trust them to give us expert advice.”

Board chair Jen Rupert summed up the troubles the board faces in this situation by saying how conflicted she is.

“Every thought has an opposing thought,” she said.

Factors to consider

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to move to in-person learning.

First is that everyone wishes things were like they used to be.

“We all want to get kids back in school,” Stein said.

But there is obviously a coronavirus infection risk to students, staff and families when schools reopen.

If teachers are uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning, there will be staffing shortages.

“Without staff we can’t get back to school,” said Amy Littlejohn, director of Human Resources for Roaring Fork Schools.

Waiting for conditions to improve might be a wise choice because opening schools and then being forced to return to distance learning could be very stressful for everyone involved.

“If there’s a radical spike then we could be required to pivot immediately back to distance learning,” Stein said.

On the other hand, the development of young children is impeded without in-person instruction, and distance learning is difficult for many families.

The adverse effects on mental health of children and families involved with at-home learning cannot be overlooked, as several people noted during public comment.

The district’s efforts to get computer equipment to those who need it is taking longer than hoped, Gatlin said, and internet problems are causing problems with distance learning, a problem that board member Jasmin Ramirez was experiencing that same day.

Back to school

With all this in mind, the board opted for the “rush the timeline” option, charging Stein and his team to develop a plan to get kindergartners through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28. Stein preferred that date to the original tentative date to reopen of Sept. 21 as it would give two and a half weeks to prepare.

The board will meet next week — between its regularly scheduled meetings — to look at the reopening plan.

“I’m confident they’ll bring back a workable plan,” Rupert said in a followup interview.

No direction was given by the board regarding returning the higher grades to school.

“The board was not ready last night to move any further on middle school or high school yet,” Rupert said.

That discussion will take place at the next regular meeting on Sept. 23, she said.

It is possible that if COVID numbers spike between now and Sept. 28, the reopening effort will be scuttled.

“This is an arena that is changing so fast that all of us — board members, exec team, staff, community, parents, kids — are going to have to be open to the understanding that everything is changeable,” Rupert said.


Despite a ‘blizzard,’ all goes well for Aspen Elementary on Tuesday as kids return to classroom

Tuesday marked the first day back in a physical classroom for Aspen Elementary School students since March, before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a halt. And, in true mountain town fashion, that day brought with it a freak September snowstorm as the kids were trying to return home.

“I am frozen solid. We just had a carpool line for pick up and it was a full on blizzard, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while,” AES Principal Chris Basten said late Tuesday afternoon. “It was the perfect apocalyptic ending, but to what was otherwise a pretty awesome day.”

Students began arriving on the Aspen School District campus around 8 a.m. Tuesday for their first in-person classes since March 11. A major worry for Basten was dealing with the morning traffic as kids were being dropped off, but all went as well as possible in getting students to their respective cohorts without much overlap. A “flex start” was in place, meaning a vague 9 a.m. start for classes to allow as much time as possible for morning transport.

AES students are divided into two cohorts this fall, one attending classes Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other Thursdays and Fridays. Basten didn’t have an official head count Tuesday, but said there should have been a little more than 200 students on campus, roughly half of the AES enrollment for this school year.

“It could not have gone more smoothly in the morning. It was really great,” Basten said. “Teachers are in their element when they are teaching kids. Even though there was certainly a fair amount of anxiety and concern leading up to what today would look like, it seemed like once the kids arrived everything just kind of flowed automatically.”

While there may have been more than 200 students on campus Tuesday, they were divided into those cohorts of about 10 students each and kept separate. This even includes lunchtime, as the cafeteria remains closed. The cohorts not attending in-person classes Tuesday were able to take part virtually.

Without middle and high school students on campus yet, the AES students were able to utilize the entire block, with third graders using the middle school and fourth graders using the high school. Many teachers took their classes outside when the weather allowed.

“The story of the day from my lens was just seeing our amazing teachers connecting with their students for the first time since March for in-person learning,” Basten said. “I visited many of the classrooms and just found there to be a lot of excitement in the air and positivity. The kids were so glad to be back at school.”

There won’t be any in-person learning Wednesdays, a day dedicated to online-only specials like music and art, as well as a day for teachers to plan and for the schools to be deep cleaned between cohorts. Beginning Thursday, the second group of cohorts will come to campus for their first in-person classes, essentially Day 1, Take 2 for the teachers and staff.

“It’s a different group and they are going to provide their own energy and excitement and I’m looking forward to seeing all their smiling faces and all their parents, as well,” Basten said. “I was really, really happy with how the day had gone. The carpool line at the end of the day was a real challenge with the blizzard. It was just terrible conditions, but we got everybody safely where they needed to be.”


Aspen Elementary School students return to classroom under new cohort system

When schools closed in March as the coronavirus pandemic was taking root, students, teachers and parents were sent scrambling to figure out the next steps. A system for online learning was eventually established, but it put a lot of burden on the parents and wasn’t exactly ideal for the younger elementary school students.

That’s why Aspen Elementary School Principal Chris Basten thought it was so important to turn over every stone to find a way to get the young kids back in a physical classroom this fall.

“They were trying to keep their jobs and were thrust into this thing called teaching,” Basten said last week of the parents. “There is a reason we have all these professionals on campus who do it for a living. So we kind of knew if we could get elementary kids back on campus, that would be great for the kids and great for the parents.”

Despite all the hurdles, the Aspen School District found a plan that, at least on paper, should work. Starting Tuesday, the AES students begin the 2020-21 school year with roughly half of them set to return to the ASD campus for the first time since March 11. The other half will make their debut Thursday as part of the school’s cohort system.

“We’ve really been working on trying to create the most healthy situation that we can, because when we open we want to make sure we are able to stay open,” said Kay Erickson, a kindergarten teacher who also serves as the Aspen Education Association president. “We don’t want to put all this work and effort into this and have to close.”

Normally, a teacher would have between 15 and 20 kids in a classroom. For the time being, those students are now divided into two cohorts of about 10 each. Cohort “A” will attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while cohort “B” will be in the classroom on Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesday is strictly online, with an emphasis on specials like art and music, as well as a day to deep clean the buildings between cohorts. Even though students will only have two days in a physical classroom, they will still “attend” class five days a week and will be able to connect with their other cohort virtually.

And since the middle and high school students aren’t yet returning to in-person learning at this time — a return date for the older kids hadn’t been established as of Monday night — the AES students are going to take advantage of the extra space by spreading the more than 450 students across the ASD campus. Basten said they are going to utilize six classrooms in the middle school and five more in the high school.

Should the older students return to campus in the coming weeks or months, Basten said that would likely mean all AES students would then return to their own building in some fashion.

“Those 10 kids you have on Monday and Tuesday, they stay together. They don’t intermingle with other groups of kids, for anything,” Basten said. “The idea is, should we have an infection, it would be limited to that cohort. So rather than shutting the school down, it would be that cohort that would have to go and learn remotely. We are hoping that doesn’t happen, but we are prepared for anything.”

Even if the school does have to shut down because of an outbreak, Basten and the teachers felt it was important for them to establish a relationship with the kids before then. With students getting new teachers this year, that relationship isn’t yet there and that can make online learning even more difficult. Those established relationships helped tremendously in the spring when the district took everything online.

As far as the desire to get kids back into the classroom, the numbers say it’s high from parents. Basten said at one point over the summer about 10% of the families had an interest in going online-only this fall — which remains an option for any student — but as of last week only 13 families total wanted to go that route.

The return to campus began last week when AES hosted a weeklong orientation. Each student had a day and a time they could come by and meet with teachers and find their classrooms. For teachers and students alike, it was a joyful experience and a significant, albeit cautious and tentative, step toward a return to normality.

“There was no closure, and I feel like there still hasn’t been any closure,” second-grade teacher Jennifer Liddington said of the way the school year ended in the spring. “It gives you energy to see all the kids coming back. Not one of them is like, ‘No, I don’t want to come to school.’ They are, ‘Yes, we want to come back to school.’ They are just excited to come back and it gives you energy to see them happy and ready to be here.”


Bond campaign for $94M will be Aspen School District’s third in 15 years

Leaders at the Aspen School District are banking on a $94 million bond proposal that will focus on building new teacher housing and making other capital improvements.

It will be the third bond question brought to school district voters in 15 years. Voters passed a $33 million bond proposal for facility upgrades in November 2005, and another $12 million bond question in 2008 created to address staff housing needs.

This November’s question — unanimously adopted by the school board’s five members at a special meeting last week — asks voters to approve more than $94 million with a maximum repayment of $161.9 million. The district is bringing the question ahead of 2021’s scheduled retirement of the current bonds.

As well, voters in the Aspen and Snowmass Village municipalities will be asked to extend their respective sales and property taxes supporting the district.

Voters living with the school district can expect to see campaign literature in their mailboxes leading up to the election.

“Election Day is just not on Election Day,” consultant Paul Hanley told the board on Friday. “Election Day starts on Oct. 14 when the ballots are sent out. Between Oct. 14 and Election Day, every day is Election Day.”

Calling it the campaign a “45-day foot race” to mid-October when ballots go out, board member Dwayne Romero said the work now “transitions into a citizen-led campaign” to push the passage of the questions.

Results of a survey mailed to households in August showed “a limited awareness of the funding proposal being considered, with 32% of respondents having read, seen or heard a lot or some about the District’s bond proposal,” according to a summary of the survey presented to the school board. “This is important because the survey indicates that support for the proposal increases with awareness.”

The district received a 6.5% response rate with the surveys — seeing a return of 437 of the 6,720 questionnaires sent to households with at least one registered voter.

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said they have children in the school district, and another 63% said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote in favor of the bond question. Another 76% of the respondents living in Aspen said they would support reauthorizing the sales tax, and 66% said they were behind the Snowmass property tax renewal.

The district has 50 housing units for its employees, and teacher pay continues to be a concern. However, bonds cannot support an increase in compensation, but they can be used to build housing. The 2005 bond question for teacher housing has not panned out, the district conceded in its August mail-out.

“The District works hard to proactively maintain its school buildings and other facilities,” said an ASD-produced “Just the Facts” brochure that accompanied a survey. “However, there are capital investments that were not addressed by the 2005 voter-approved bond measure that now need to be addressed.”

The Nov. 3 ballot question, Issue 4A, puts the teachers up near the top, saying bonds would be used for “attracting and retaining quality teachers and staff by acquiring and constructing affordable housing; replacing outdated plumbing, HVAC systems and roofing to extend the useful life of existing facilities; addressing health, safety and security upgrades districtwide; updating instructional technology; improving classrooms, science labs, libraries and performing arts spaces; creating flexible and adaptive learning environments, including outdoor learning spaces; constructing a new preschool and mixed-use facility; and addressing energy efficiency upgrades districtwide.”

The proposed improvements are part of the district’s facilities master plan it embarked on in 2019.


Colorado spending $2M in relief funding to provide internet access to students

DENVER — Colorado will spend $2 million in federal pandemic relief funding to provide internet access to students who lack service as part of an overall effort to close the digital divide in both rural and urban parts of the state as the pandemic has forced many to rely on online learning.

State education commissioner Kathy Anthes announced the plan on Wednesday, joined by Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser. School districts will be able to apply for grants to pay for hotspots to provide internet access to households as well as things like mobile hotspot trucks that may work better in rural areas, she said.

“Broadband access is now an essential school supply. It’s a non negotiable,” she said at the Fort Logan Northgate School in the Sheridan School District 2 in Denver.

Weiser also announced that T-Mobile would provide up to 34,000 low-income student households in Colorado with a free WiFi hotspot and 100GB of free data for a year as well as discounted devices like tablets and computers. It’s part of a national effort the wireless company announced in November and the commitment to help those households fulfills part of a settlement agreement Weiser’s office reached with it last fall regarding its $26.5 billion purchase of Sprint.

Weiser also announced he has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday asking that it use funding for improving school internet access to pay for extending schools’ broadband networks to students’ homes and for WiFi hotspots or other online access for students.

More than 65,000 students in Colorado lack internet access, according to the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative.