Aspen school leaders back off August opening

Aspen Middle School.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

From the Aspen School District’s school board members to its new superintendent team not five weeks into the job, they are learning quickly that reopening classrooms online or in person will not receive universal community support.

The five-member board, however, reached a consensus Monday to nix Aug. 26 as a starting date for in-person learning at Aspen Elementary School after an outcry from teachers who said the plan was premature, lacked clarity, and put the health of educators, staff and students at risk.

A differing view, reflected in a letter signed by the parents from nearly 90 households and presented to the board, pushed for outdoor learning “as much as possible” and to get kids back in the classrooms.

“Most importantly,” group spokeswoman Tara Nelson read to the board, “we believe that in-person learning for our younger students in general poses far fewer risks to their overall health, well-being and social-emotional development than the potential long-term presence of the novel coronavirus does. In-person learning is the most equitable option; without it, a certain number of students experiencing barriers to learning online or from households that cannot support this will fall behind, perhaps irreparably.”

The board marked its calendar for 5 p.m. Aug. 17, which is when they will decide on a plan to reopen the pre-K, elementary, middle and high schools this fall. Their tentative goal is to start class at all of the schools — remote learning will be a major focus — after Labor Day, which is Sept. 7.

Parties more or less agree that online learning, at least for the first month of the semester, is appropriate for the seventh and eighth grades, as well as the high school. It gets trickier with the younger students in prekindergarten through fifth and sixth grades, however, because of medical reports saying they are less susceptible to COVID-19.

Mental health and regression also remain high concerns as children are socializing less with their peers and isolating more because of health orders that limit personal interaction.

As far as middle school wellness teacher Clay Shiflet is concerned, having in-person classes — no matter how much social distancing is practiced or mask-wearing is done — is a “terrifying” idea.”

Shiflet was afflicted with COVID-19 earlier this year at the age of 45 while in good health with no pre-existing conditions, he said, imploring the board to back off opening the elementary school later this month.

“It’s the easy decision,” he said. “It’s the safe decision.”

Another teacher, Kamala Marsh, also got the virus in March, making her “very, very sick” for about a month and a half, she said, recommending the board take more time to make a decision.

In the meantime, the board agreed to establish a 15-member task force with an even representation among teachers, administrators, mental heath officials, medical experts and parents to nail down a plan so school can open this fall — whether online or in person.

They will be pressed with crafting a plan by next week. Superintendent David Baugh said a town hall-style meeting concerning the issue could be held Wednesday with details to come.

Monday’s board meeting attracted nearly 300 people to the Zoom platform from where it was broadcast. Four of the board members also attended the meeting in person at the high school’s seminar room, where up to 25 people were allowed to attend.

The Aspen Education Association, which represents the district’s 140 teachers, stands opposed to having in-person classes at this time. A poll from the AEA, conducted after the preliminary plan was made public last week, showed that 78% of its respondents were against in-person learning and supported taking it online.

“With cases increasing across the state of Colorado and the entire country, the educators of Aspen School District believe that it is irresponsible to open our buildings at this time,” the AEA said in a statement issued Saturday in lead-up to Monday’s meeting. “Doing so may likely lead to an outbreak right before winter tourism, a time critical to the economy and lifeblood of the Aspen area. Members of the Aspen Education Association call upon the Board of Education to follow the lead of the many school districts in our state and our valley and begin the school year online. The health and safety of our educators, our students, and our community is at stake.”

The preliminary plan to open classes in the elementary school was influenced by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, said Baugh, who moved to Aspen from Pennsylvania to begin the job July 1.

Some parents and teachers were critical of Baugh on the chat section of Zoom, but the new superintendent said he has been working hard with his new colleagues to get the schools on track.

“No one is trying to put teachers or kids in harm’s way,” he said, “and we have to make the decisions based on the information we have.”

Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry was principal before he took his new post July 1. He pressed for collaboration among all.

“I know we can do this if we all pull together and make it work,” he said. “We did it for graduation, we did it for the summer camps. … We just have to trust one another and confront the brutal facts we have and know we will prevail when this is completed.”

Board President Susan Marolt, who could not attend in person because she was traveling, agreed with other board members that more time is needed to make a decision.

“I do believe that we need to take some time and we need to make sure that we have listened to our experts in our district, and our teachers and our staff who know the buildings,” she said. “They know the students and they know what it takes to make them feel safe, and that’s important and critical to them doing their jobs that they do well, and we have to honor that.”

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