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Aspen School District lines up moving parts to re-open

Aspen High School
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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.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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