Giving Thought: Virus places Aspen, Roaring Fork educators in the hot seat

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

This is a difficult time to be an educator.

Stop for a moment and consider how, in the fall of 2020, schoolteachers have now joined health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Schools have always been disease-transmission hubs — places where hygiene and handwashing are preached by adults and widely overlooked by children — but the stakes in 2020 are much higher.

As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus approaches 200,000, schoolteachers and administrators have been asked to step up as part of the recovery. Yes, education is their job, but it’s much harder nowadays to protect (let alone guarantee) the safety of students and staff.

In the absence of clear federal or state guidelines, school officials have been forced to decide whether they teach in person or online, or a mix of the two. So, while students in one Colorado county may be attending classes via computer, the kids in an adjacent district may be busing to school for in-person classes.

Whatever decision your local schools have made, it’s fair to say that they haven’t pleased everyone. Speaking generally, parents are understandably pushing for kids to return to school (so parents can return to work), while teachers are concerned about the consequences of a return to “normal,” especially if they’re older or have health conditions.

These are hard choices, fraught with competing priorities and no clear boundaries between right and wrong. Public schools may be the finest demonstration of how, with our children’s health in the balance, we are all truly in this together.

A brief look at two public school districts in our valley — Aspen and Roaring Fork — is instructive.

Aspen School District opened this year using a “phased, hybrid opening model” with different plans for different ages. Kids from kindergarten to fourth-grade attend school for two days per week and learn remotely on three days. One “cohort” of students attends school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while another attends on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is a virtual day for everyone. This system means that only half of the K-4 student body is on campus at any given time, which enables teachers to distance kids from one another.

Aspen students in grades 5-12 are on a virtual-learning program, similar to spring of 2020, but with instructional plans that have been sharpened and improved by teachers over the summer.

“We’d really like to have everybody in school if we could,” said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry. “But when we hit middle school, the group size becomes fairly large” and the numbers don’t allow for safe distancing. Additionally, he said, school officials felt older students can adjust more readily to virtual learning.

“A lot of this was determined by who simply had the most need,” Mulberry said.

Following a “rolling announcement calendar” and keeping a close eye on public health, the district is constantly evaluating the situation and hoping to invite more students back to campus. But the driving factor is community health risk, as indicated by Pitkin County’s “coronameter” (

The Roaring Fork School District, which operates schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, has a larger student body and overlaps three counties. This complicates the district’s coronavirus decision-making and, not surprisingly, the district has already experienced back-and-forth in its coronavirus response.

Having started the year with a K-12 distance-learning plan (while also hoping for in-person learning by Sept. 21), the RFSD board of education decided on Sept. 8 to stay with distance-learning through Oct. 5. That decision was based on perceived health risks. But the very next day, the district board heard from numerous parents, staff members and students who argued for opening schools earlier. The result was a board decision to switch K-3 students to in-person learning beginning Sept. 28.

“We appreciate all of this feedback and are grateful to have a community that can disagree in a thoughtful, respectful and heartfelt way,” wrote Superintendent Rob Stein in a Sept. 10 update.

This is a case study in competing priorities. In RFSD’s 2020 Back-to-School Guiding Principles, the first principle is the well-being of everyone in the school community. Who could argue with that? The second principle states the district’s preference for “face-to-face learning over distance learning, whenever it is safe to do so.” Also correct.

However, the pandemic places these two valid priorities in direct conflict. Here’s how Mulberry sums it up: “What you feel (as an administrator) is exasperation on both sides, which both have valid issues and points.”

Be patient, everyone. We’ll get through this and we may even learn a few lessons.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.