Aspen School District planning for a ‘hybrid’ reopening this fall

The Aspen School District plans to open schools on time in August, although the high school kids will begin the year working online from home.
Aspen Times file photo

School is back in session. Kind of. The students will be back in the classroom. Somewhat.

That’s more or less the rough draft of a plan new Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh will discuss during a virtual town hall meeting Thursday, and again during Monday’s Board of Education meeting ahead of a planned Aug. 26 first day of school.

“We expect some push back, we expect some concern,” Baugh said Wednesday. “We are treating everybody’s children as if they were our children. Safety is our No. 1 priority, of course.”

The general idea is to have students from preschool through sixth grade return to a physical classroom from the start of the school year, while seventh grade up through the high school will stick with online learning for at least the first month. A second plan could keep the fifth- and sixth-graders home for the start, as well. Nothing has been finalized.

It’s all part of the ASD’s “phased hybrid opening” approach to reopening during the new COVID-19 world. The district shut its doors to in-person learning in March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in Colorado, and students haven’t been back since. For roughly the final two months of the spring semester, the district moved to virtual learning with students and teachers working remotely from home.

While the spring’s version of online learning was relatively laid back, Baugh said the online learning students will face this fall will look a lot different and require more dedication. Sleeping in until noon isn’t going to be an option.

“It’s going to be more structured, more responsibility for the kids. We have higher expectations this year than we did last spring for online learning,” Baugh said. “We are asking the kids to dial in, if you will, at certain times. If science is at 9 o’clock, you have to log in to science at 9 o’clock. If social studies is at 11:30, you got to log in at 11:30. It will be a mix of real-time instruction and independent work.”

Unlike in the spring, and despite the older students remaining at home, Baugh said all teachers, including those in high school, will report to the school for work each day. They’ll operate mostly as they normally would, although they’ll give lessons virtually in an otherwise empty classroom, outside of some special needs students who will be permitted to attend in person.

“Safety of students and educators is our primary concern. We want to be in the classroom when and if it’s safe,” said Marnie White, a music teacher at the elementary school who also serves as the secretary for the Aspen Education Association, which largely speaks for the district’s teachers. “The majority of our members are uncomfortable with the safety of potential in-person learning.”

The AEA members received the rough draft of the district’s reopening plan late Wednesday and hadn’t had time to fully digest the information or receive feedback from teachers. The discussions that take place during Thursday’s virtual town hall meeting and Monday’s BOE meeting will help shape the final plan.

The rough draft of the reopening plan includes many guidelines regarding COVID-19 safety. For instance, even the elementary school students, who are statistically the least likely to get the disease, will be asked to wear masks in the classroom and students will mostly stick with one teacher each day to minimize contact between staff members.

Kay Erickson, a kindergarten teacher who serves as the AEA president, said a lot of work remains before the district can reopen its doors to students and teachers, and wanted to make sure the safety of the rest of the staff wasn’t forgotten.

“It isn’t just about the teachers, because you have the bus drivers, you have the cafeteria workers who are serving the food, you have the janitorial staff,” Erickson said. “I love the fact we like to focus on teachers, but we don’t really function and work without our whole entire staff.”

Baugh hopes the online learning plan for the older students is only temporary. He is “guardedly hopeful” of a late September return for even the high school students back to a physical classroom, although all of this will be determined by how the pandemic progresses locally.

Sports also remain a big question mark, notably for the high school. However, the Colorado High School Activities Association on Wednesday did give softball and boys tennis the go ahead to start practice as planned on Aug. 10. Boys golf had already been given the thumbs up and will start practice Monday.

CHSAA expects to make an announcement in regard to the remainder of fall sports, including football, by the end of this week.

According to the ASD, 22 other countries have already returned to in-person learning under similar guidelines without issue and it is using this as a springboard to hopefully get the Aspen kids safely back in the classroom as well.

“Opening school is really controversial,” Baugh said. “People are nervous and anxious and they are worried about their health and they are worried about their children’s health and their family’s health. … We see no reason, based on our county health numbers, not to be among those to reopen this fall.”

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