Aspen schools won’t be seeing Red, but disruptions continue |

Aspen schools won’t be seeing Red, but disruptions continue

Staffing shortage after holiday break postpones return to in-person learning for younger students

This week has seen restaurants open to indoor dining and public schools closed to in-person learning, but that scenario won’t last much longer.

The board of health’s decision Monday to put Pitkin County under Red level restrictions confines restaurants in Aspen, Redstone, Snowmass Village and other locales to outdoor dining and takeout meals only, starting Sunday.

Yet the Aspen School District isn’t bound to the same color-code restrictions that businesses follow. The district instead makes its operating decisions based on consultations with county health officials and virus trends among students and staff.

“For the most part, we are seeing a huge amount of quarantining but almost nobody gets sick while in quarantine,” Superintendent David Baugh said Tuesday. “And we don’t feel like here it’s being transmitted in the schools.”

The school district, however, isn’t immune to the impacts being felt locally, where in Pitkin County the incidence rate has been in the 3,000 range for the past week, one of the highest in the state.

Aspen Elementary School, which despite a handful of disruptions has had in-person learning in some capacity since Sept. 8, was forced into remote learning Monday because of a staff shortage. On Friday, a district-wide email reported that 15 staff members were at home either in quarantine or sick (but not with COVID-19). Before that announcement, the pre-school, elementary school and fifth- and sixth-grades had been scheduled to return to in-person learning this week.

On Tuesday afternoon, the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which is based chiefly on results from district-wide testing given to asymptomatic students and staff, reported 18 students positive with the coronavirus, including 10 at the elementary school. There were no positive cases reported among staff.

Of those 18 cases, none of them were picked up on campus, according to the dashboard. Baugh noted the students who contracted the virus were out of school over the holidays. The school offered testing Jan. 4 and another round is scheduled Wednesday.

Aspen High School social studies teacher Tameira Wilson teaches a class through zoom in her empty classroom in Aspen on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Baugh said the most current plan is for pre-K through fifth-grade to return to school Tuesday after MLK Day. The district also hopes to open both the middle and high schools to in-person learning the last week of January in “some fashion,” Baugh said, meaning it could be either through a hybrid approach or full implementation.

Recent studies focusing on the transmission and spread of COVID-19 cases in schools have suggested hybrid and in-person learning do not contribute to the spread of the virus in communities with low case rates. However, they can contribute to spreading in a community with high case rates.

“One of the reasons for uncertainty about whether schools should be open for in-person education has been the shifting evidence about whether children transmit the coronavirus, at all and/or at rates that might be dangerous for in-school or community spread,” said a study released in December by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Titled “To What Extent Does In-Person Schooling Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19?,” the study focused on evidence from Michigan and Washington.

“President Trump, for instance, suggested at several points in the summer of 2020 that children do not transmit COVID. Since then, the CDC has made it clear that children, while typically having milder reactions to infection, can transmit the virus both to other children and to adults. While it is now clear that children do transmit the virus, a growing number of health experts suggest that they are less likely to be vectors of the disease than are adults.”

Meanwhile, at Monday’s health board meeting, as restaurant owners and others in the business community made impassioned and reasoned pleas to keep indoor dining open, concerns also aired that staying in Orange level restrictions would pose a greater risk to both the health of the community and its schools.

It’s a delicate act, trying to keep the economy running and the schools safe, said Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper, an alternate on the board of health.

“I’m looking at the health of these children and on one hand, we want to keep schools and day-cares open,” she said. “At the same time, what are we doing to impact their families’ situation to keep good food on the table of these families?”

Likewise, the remote classroom setting is not conducive to the most effective means of learning.

“We do have to think of these school children,” board member Dr. Jeannie Seybold said. “Unless we get the incidence rates down, we’re not going to be able to get open. … And the kids who are having remote learning are suffering from lots of mental-health issues and an education slide, and we have to stop this. Our job on the board of health is to protect our community’s health, as well as our kids.’”

Board alternate Dr. Christa Gieszl said she sees firsthand the virus’s effect on valley residents.

“I have three children that are home from school this week and I think, ‘Shame on us for allowing our kids to be out of school and to not have this under control,’“ she said. “I really feel very strongly that we cannot continue status quo.”

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