Roaring Fork Schools look to other district’s COVID experience as students begin classroom return

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Sopris Elementary School teachers McKenna Miller and Liza Stewart work recently to mark the hallways for student traffic flow in preparation for the return of in-person classes.
Courtesy photo

As Roaring Fork Schools launch a phased transition of students from distance learning to in-person classes next week, it has almost two months of take-aways from other districts across Colorado as to best practices during the coronavirus pandemic.

There has been a lot of “trial and error” for districts that began the year with the option of in-person learning, as others, including schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, opted for an online distance learning model, Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein said in a recent interview.

“We have formally interviewed about a dozen school districts, both in our area and throughout the state,” Stein said. “There are lots of different models in terms of managing this disease and limiting spread.

“Our focus has been on what’s best for student learning, and taking the precautions we need to.”

Since the school year began in late August, that approach has been to provide instruction using online platforms for grades kindergarten through high school — in real time for the most part but with a mix of asynchronous coursework for older students in particular to complete.

Some teachers have been leading online classes from their in-school classrooms. All but a handful of special needs or at-risk students, or those without a good home internet connection, have been learning from home or other remote locations.

Barring any major COVID-related developments, that changes Monday when K-3 students are to return to school buildings, followed by grades 5-8 on Oct. 26 and high schools on Nov. 2.

Experts, not metrics

The district has changed its thinking about an in-person return, from relying on state and local coronavirus statistics and metrics to guide that decision, to meeting regularly with local public health and medical experts to get their advice.

“We are watching other districts and what they are doing,” Stein said during Wednesday’s school board meeting, where specifics of the timeline and recommendations for monitoring COVID-19 risk levels were discussed.

Just this week, Denver Public Schools decided to revert to distance learning due to a new surge in coronavirus cases on the Front Range.

A corresponding local uptick in cases is cause for concern, Stein said, “but our local conditions are very different from Denver right now.”

A few things could change the district’s plans along the way. Among them:

  • A consistent increase in new coronavirus cases that could prompt local public health and medical professionals to advise against proceeding.
  • Staffing shortages to cover both in-person classes and those students/families who opt to remain on the distance learning plan.
  • At Glenwood Springs High School in particular, issues with the heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system that could limit air-flow safety measures that have been implemented in school buildings.

Each of those points was discussed during the school board meeting, and for now everything appears to be on track to stick to the established timeline, district officials said.

The school board unanimously approved the return-to-school plan, as well as agreements with teachers regarding temporary placements and transfers for the remainder of the school year.

Teacher exceptions, concerns

Teachers can qualify for accommodations to teach in the distance learning program instead of being in buildings with students, if they have a medical condition that puts them at greater risk, if they have a household member who’s at risk, or are a caregiver for someone at risk.

Those who qualify for accommodation are being assigned to teach in the distance learning program, Stein said.

Based on the experience of other districts across the state, approximately 15-20% of the district’s roughly 5,000 students are likely to opt for distance learning, he said.

An employee’s comfort level about returning for in-person instruction does not qualify.

“We are not able to make staff assignments based on comfort,” Stein said, adding that there have been some teacher resignations as a result.

Staffing is in place for K-3 to begin next week, but is still a work in progress, said Rick Holt, Chief Academic Officer for the district. How that shakes out for the older students in the coming weeks is yet to be determined.

Students who opt for distance learning will have teachers assigned to that specific program, as teachers for the most part are not expected to teach both in-person classes and online, Holt said.

The number of students likely to opt for distance learning and teachers requesting that accommodation are “untethered,” Holt said.

Online classes are to include students from multiple schools with teachers assigned to the online school program, he said.

Teachers and students doing in-person classes will also need to be prepared to return to the online format in the event of a positive COVID test in their school and required 14-day quarantine period.

The local teachers union, Roaring Fork Community Education Association, outlined a number of questions and concerns in a Wednesday letter to the school board and district administration.

One concern is the size of student cohorts that are planned, and when a cohort is considered too big to be effective in controlling disease spread should a positive case crop up. Public health guidelines recommend students be kept in set groups as a way to control disease spread.

Also among the teacher concerns is for those who teach multiple groups of students, primarily specials teachers who see multiple classes of students per day. The district was working on answering the teachers’ outline concerns by the end of the day Thursday.

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