Aspen middle, high schools eye October reopenings
Aspen School District leaders agreed to a plan Monday to reopen the middle school to in-person learning the first full week of October and the entire campus five weeks later, but not before multiple teachers expressed concerns about the COVID-19 risk posed on staff and students.
Four members at the virtual board of education meeting marked Oct. 5 as the start date for class at Aspen Middle School using a hybrid approach. Under that model, students in cohorts A and B would exchange weeks attending in-person class. Students not in school would continue class online like they’ve done since it began the last week of August.
The scheduled opening day will hinge on local COVID-19 trends. If the county’s Coronameter stays in either the blue or yellow zones — comfortable and cautious, respectively — the district can stick to its plan to open the high school under a similar hybrid model Oct. 19, the same date the elementary school would open to full class sizes five days a week. The tentative plan puts the middle and high schools being entirely open Nov. 2.
Parents would have the option to have their children continue online learning this school year at no cost, Baugh said.
As of Monday, the county’s Coronameter was in the yellow zone.
“What’s going on in the community and what’s going on in the school district, that’s something we’re monitoring daily,” Baugh said.
The decision was made before roughly 200 people on the Zoom board-meeting call, suggesting a school community anxious for more clarity about this fall’s academic setting for Aspen public schools. Tensions among teachers, parents and the district’s decision-makers also were on display, as the reopening plan also came out at a time when a group of parents have mobilized to shake up the top administration at the middle school. Middle school teachers countered with a letter presented to the board expressing their support for interim Principal Elizabeth Meador and Assistant Principal Jayson Thomas.
Superintendent David Baugh noted “high levels of anxiety in our community and many, many different viewpoints” in regards to how and when to reopen schools.
The Aspen Community School in Woody Creek and Aspen Elementary currently are open using a hybrid approach, yet opening the entire campus is a proposition many teachers cautioned against. The elementary school has enjoyed use of all three campus buildings since the middle and high schools have been closed, but that will change once in-person learning opens to all, they said.
Elementary School Principal Chris Basten said that two weeks in operations have gone well under the hybrid model, where one cohort of students attends schools Monday and Tuesdays and the other Thursdays and Fridays, while teachers use Wednesdays for planning purposes.
“Logistically we did all of our heavy lifting in July and August on how to make this work,” he said, “and we know what needs to be done in order to welcome all of our kids back.”
Kindergarten teacher Tana Rinaldi, an educator for 35 years, said the cohort system has worked because the groups are smaller and kids can spread out. Under the plan’s scenario to fully open the schools, however, she isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think I am able to guarantee safety in my classroom,” she said.
A survey sent out by the Aspen Education Association, which represents the teachers, showed 87% of the respondents “feels the plan proposed moves from one learning model to the next much too quickly. Given that the incubation period for COVID is two weeks, staff feels three weeks at a minimum is required to make sure infection rates do not rise in our school, and four weeks is preferred,” read a presentation from the AEA’s Kay Erickson to the board.
Sept. 29 was initially proposed but the date was changed to give staff an extra week to plan, giving staff two weeks while also teaching remotely.
The district also faces a shortage of bus drivers and substitute teachers. Under the proposal, staggered bus runs would be done to allow social distancing, with elementary school running from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and the middle and high schools from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Face-coverings would be required on campus and in buses, and cafeteria lunches would be delivered to the classrooms.
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In her 22 years at Aspen School District, Julie Markalunas Hall said the district and the community have “always put in the passion and the effort. … They both have to do it together to provide the resources that kids need.”