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Roaring Fork Schools assess plans as COVID cases rise

John Stroud
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs Middle School students leave in staggered group intervals during the final bell on Tuesday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

There was more to this week’s perfect storm than the weather for the Roaring Fork Schools, as a new wave of students made their way back to classrooms for the first time since March.

As the storm blew in Monday, the district was dealing with its first student and staff quarantine situation at Carbondale’s Crystal River Elementary School (CRES) due to confirmed cases of COVID-19 involving individuals at the school.

The response was, for the most part, a textbook example of a routine that’s played out numerous times in districts across the state, including the neighboring Garfield Re-2 Schools, which have been meeting in person since late August.

The CRES quarantine resulted in 30 students in two classrooms and some staff being asked to quarantine and return to the online distance learning program just a week after grades kindergarten to third had returned to school.

“We would rather have the opportunity to test the process without so many variables coming into play all at once,” Superintendent Rob Stein said of the weather concerns, coupled with a major power outage in Basalt, another one in Carbondale on Tuesday, and an even more concerning problem.

“One of the big variables we have to consider in these decisions right now is staff capacity, because of the sub shortage,” Stein said of a lack of both short- and long-term substitute teachers in the district.

The CRES quarantine also resulted in the district’s Carbondale preschool program being shut down temporarily, which directly impacts teachers if they don’t have another child care option.

On Monday, “we had to be really flexible with things because we were short-staffed, not only because of the snow, but because of program cancelations,” Stein said.

Despite the weather and staffing challenges, schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt welcomed grades 4-8 back to in-person classrooms Monday.

It was the second week of in-person K-3 classes, and the district is now preparing for the return of high school students Nov. 4.

Complicating things is the concern around a new spike in COVID-19 cases in Garfield and surrounding counties, as well as statewide, leading to new restrictions on gatherings and business operations.

The Roaring Fork school board was set to meet Wednesday evening to hear a report from district administrators about the resumption of in-person learning. Public comments will be taken, including from teachers, many of which have continued to express concerns about working conditions and efforts to prevent disease spread.

Middle schoolers back in class

Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway said Monday went “surprisingly smooth,” despite the weather.

“Our students were all settled into class and raring to go around 9. Our goal on a perfect day is 8:45,” he said, adding he’s never seen snow on the first day back to school for students before.

“It’s just another gift of 2020,” Hathaway quipped.

Roughly 12% of the 476 students at GSMS have decided to stick with distance learning, he said of the option families have to not return to in-person learning.

That’s consistent with the numbers districtwide. Out of 1,881 students in grades 4-8 from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, 253 (13%) have decided to stay online. A similar percentage of K-3 students also remain online rather than coming to school in person, Roaring Fork Schools Public Information Officer Kelsy Been said.

Carbondale Middle School Principal Jennifer Lamont said attendance was back to normal Tuesday, after some weather-related absentees Monday.

“In true 2020 fashion, Carbondale schools have been dealt 10 inches of snow, single-digit temperatures and a power outage, but I could not be prouder of how our community has stepped up to adapt to new ways of transitioning, studying, communicating and learning from each other,” Lamont said. “We have had a great few days back in person.”

Expert advice

Key to the Roaring Fork District’s decision to transition back to in-person instruction after starting the school year online has been a move away from statistical metrics around COVID cases numbers, and instead listening to the advice of public health and medical experts.

“They have continued to say it’s OK to resume in-person learning,” Stein said.

“One of our challenges is that the coronavirus is so new and people are not yet sure of the science,” he added.

However, since many schools have been back in session, public health officials have noted that schools — as long as proper precautions are followed and the response is quick when there is a positive case — have not been sources of outbreaks.

There have been several quarantine responses related to individual cases of COVID-19, yes, but not outbreaks, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said during her weekly update to county commissioners on Monday.

“There hasn’t been the student-to-student spread in schools that we were concerned about, which is good,” Long said. “That’s what we want to see.”

That observation has been “really foundational to our decision-making,” Stein said. “The evidence is showing that there’s not a lot of spread within schools. That’s a very good sign.”

That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, he said, which is why the school district’s protocols and response plan are critical to preventing outbreaks.

jstroud@postindependent.com


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