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.”