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.”

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