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School board directs Roaring Fork Schools to implement in-person instruction for K-3 by Sept. 28

Charlie Wertheim
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
X’s mark six feet for social distancing outside of Basalt Elementary School on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork School Board moved to get kindergarten through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28.

The decision came after nearly four hours of presentation, public comment and board discussion Wednesday evening.

During public comment, the mental health of students and families came up as a serious and overlooked problem with distance learning.

Stein presentation

Superintendent Rob Stein opened this part of the board meeting with a nearly half-hour presentation explaining the district’s decision-making process on when to open back up to in-person learning.

He said the district’s three counties — Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — use different data for their coronameters, hampering the ability to make decisions on consistent criteria.

The state is coming out with its own coronameter, called the dial, that will solve that inconsistency, but for now the district has cobbled together metrics from various sources.

One is the Harvard Global Health Institute, which recommends waiting to open schools until the COVID incidence rate is below 25 new cases per 100,000 people (which would equal 15 cases for Garfield County) over a two-week period.

This was the main sticking point when the district announced on Tuesday that in-person learning would be delayed to at least Oct. 5. At that time the incidence rate was 68.3.

The other of the nine metrics that was not met was having air quality measures in place.

Roaring Fork Schools COO Jeff Gatlin said there was a shipping delay on air filters but that they should be installed soon and would not create a stumbling block to opening for instruction.

Stein said that kindergartners through third-graders would go back to school first for three reasons.

“Those are the ones that are hardest to teach in a distance learning environment, they’re the kids whose developmental needs are the most pressing,” and they’re the group least susceptible to infection and least likely to transmit the virus, Stein said.

Stein concluded his presentation with four options: adhere to protective measures to lower infection rates; choose other metrics to determine opening; rush the timeline; and revisit the guiding principles the board established in May.

Public comment

All 23 speakers during public comment, which took a little over an hour, were in favor of getting students back in school.

Rachel Hahn was “shocked” that mental health was not mentioned as a deciding factor. She said the district is protecting adults at the sake of the mental health of children.

Amy Kaufman, a teacher at Basalt Middle School, said that considering their unique needs and lower COVID risk the younger students could have a different decision-making pathway than the older kids.

Anika Neal from Glenwood, a kindergarten teacher at Sopris Elementary School, asked why all other local districts are back to in-person learning but not Roaring Fork. As a teacher, she said she’s trained to do what’s in children’s best interest, and distance learning is a disservice to students.

Mary Moon, who has children at Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School, said no solutions have been offered for the technology problems she’s been facing, and her children are getting an inadequate education.

Valley View physician Chris George, a Crystal River Elementary School parent, said the data does not support distance learning, especially when seven of the nine metrics have been met.

Betsy After, with a Crystal River Elementary School kindergartner, said the board is in charge and staff should report to the board.

Brion After, Betsy’s husband, said that distance learning is expanding the racial divide in the community. He also said that opening his business, Independence Run and Hike, during a pandemic was difficult at first, but he learned how to make it work, suggesting the same principle would work at the schools.

Roaring Fork High School student Annabelle Stableford said she can see how the ineffectiveness of distance learning will affect her future.

Board discussion

At the beginning of nearly two hours of discussion board member Natalie Torres said that despite the speakers’ united front, there are families that don’t want to return to in-person learning.

Board member Jennifer Scherer said that there are families of 5,000 students in the district, leaving a lot of opinions unknown.

In regard to the board being in charge, Scherer said, “We aren’t the experts; we hire the experts, and trust them to give us expert advice.”

Board chair Jen Rupert summed up the troubles the board faces in this situation by saying how conflicted she is.

“Every thought has an opposing thought,” she said.

Factors to consider

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to move to in-person learning.

First is that everyone wishes things were like they used to be.

“We all want to get kids back in school,” Stein said.

But there is obviously a coronavirus infection risk to students, staff and families when schools reopen.

If teachers are uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning, there will be staffing shortages.

“Without staff we can’t get back to school,” said Amy Littlejohn, director of Human Resources for Roaring Fork Schools.

Waiting for conditions to improve might be a wise choice because opening schools and then being forced to return to distance learning could be very stressful for everyone involved.

“If there’s a radical spike then we could be required to pivot immediately back to distance learning,” Stein said.

On the other hand, the development of young children is impeded without in-person instruction, and distance learning is difficult for many families.

The adverse effects on mental health of children and families involved with at-home learning cannot be overlooked, as several people noted during public comment.

The district’s efforts to get computer equipment to those who need it is taking longer than hoped, Gatlin said, and internet problems are causing problems with distance learning, a problem that board member Jasmin Ramirez was experiencing that same day.

Back to school

With all this in mind, the board opted for the “rush the timeline” option, charging Stein and his team to develop a plan to get kindergartners through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28. Stein preferred that date to the original tentative date to reopen of Sept. 21 as it would give two and a half weeks to prepare.

The board will meet next week — between its regularly scheduled meetings — to look at the reopening plan.

“I’m confident they’ll bring back a workable plan,” Rupert said in a followup interview.

No direction was given by the board regarding returning the higher grades to school.

“The board was not ready last night to move any further on middle school or high school yet,” Rupert said.

That discussion will take place at the next regular meeting on Sept. 23, she said.

It is possible that if COVID numbers spike between now and Sept. 28, the reopening effort will be scuttled.

“This is an arena that is changing so fast that all of us — board members, exec team, staff, community, parents, kids — are going to have to be open to the understanding that everything is changeable,” Rupert said.

cwertheim@postindependent.com


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