Guest commentary: Reopening schools a daunting yet doable task

Guest commentary

Dear Aspen School District board members, administrators and faculty:

On behalf of the directors of the child care centers from Aspen to Basalt, we would like to take the opportunity to share with you the recap of our summer with children, educate you on our protocols and procedures we have put in place, and offer assistance and support during this difficult time.

Since schools closed in March, we have learned a lot about caring and educating children. Our world as we know it has changed and we have made many adjustments over the last few months that have enabled us to offer a safe and robust educational opportunity to our youngest learners.

First and foremost, all child care centers have been open since the beginning of June. We had one school lead the way in opening in mid-May. Throughout the closure, we met weekly at first and then biweekly with Kids First (our child care resource and referral agency) and all the directors to support one another throughout this unprecedented time.

Without the guidance and conversation with other professionals in the early childhood field, we never could have gotten through all of the difficult obstacles we faced as early childhood facilities. Reopening after being closed for over two months was one of the most difficult decisions of our careers. Once we received the guidelines from Public Health, we spent much time with our staff to put together a safe plan for teachers and students to return to school. Our staff’s support was instrumental in the reopening of our schools. Early-childhood programs in the valley have now been open for almost a full three months with little to no issues regarding health concerns. This has been very encouraging for all of us!

When we decided to reopen, we expected the road to be rocky. We knew there’d be a good chance of having to close down at some point for health concerns and we understood that this pandemic would have lasting effects on the education system. Regardless, we refused to be bogged down and decided to look ahead. In this new world, it is time for innovation, creative thinking, serious team work and outstanding communication to ensure everyone’s safety going back to school.

We realize that our schools are much smaller than the school district and understand that protocols and procedures may look different. However, our students are also quite younger and yet we have been successful! We have put many protocols in place to ensure the safety of our students and staff. Navigating the daily health checks was intimidating initially, but like many other things in life, it became routine after the first few weeks. An essential part of the daily health checks consists of direct and effective communication with our preschool families. Honesty, transparency and personal responsibility are essential, and good leadership is key for this level of commitment from the school community.

Over the course of the few months that we have been operating, we have learned there are only certain things we can control. Mainly, we feel that there are four areas where our efforts can make a big difference:

• Mask wearing: All staff and children over 3 (to their capacity) wear masks when they are inside and social distancing isn’t possible.

• Handwashing and hand sanitizer when a sink is not available.

• Disinfecting materials and highly touched surfaces.

• Social distancing: In the early childhood world, social distancing is extremely difficult but we have managed to keep everyone healthy by thinking creatively and moving most of our activities outdoors.

One of the most important takeaways from being open this summer is that taking care of our students can be done. What seemed scary and daunting before actually going through this experience has become easily manageable with proper planning, innovative thinking and support from every person involved — from board members to administrators, teachers, bus drivers, janitors, families and children.

It will take a village to make school happen, but it is worth it for all of us, especially our youngest citizens. All it took was a smile from one child to confirm that re-opening our schools was the right decision to make. Now, more than ever before, it has become evident that teachers are essential workers. We have one of the most important jobs in the world, helping shape the future. Children are capable and adaptable and, from our experience, they have adapted to the “new normal” pretty seamlessly. No doubt we all need to remain flexible and ready for setbacks. Things won’t be perfect and at times we might feel like we’re living in a world of “as good as it gets.” This time is an invitation to move away from the safety of our old ways and lean into the possibilities of the unknown. It won’t all be ideal or easy, but we will emerge stronger, wiser and closer to each other.

We, as the directors of the child care centers in our area, want to invite any and all of you to learn from our experience and observe what we are doing. We are all eager to help you and support our community’s children and families get back to school. We are fortunate to live in the Roaring Fork Valley where we can enjoy the outdoors and be a part of a progressive, generous community. Let’s lean on each other to move forward and prevail. And let’s guide the next generation into the future leading by example. In the face of fear and uncertainty let’s hold on to community, cooperation, creativity and courage.

As fellow teachers, all the early-childhood educators and directors in our valley want to offer our support to those of you who might be facing the uncertainties of going back to school. Please don’t hesitate to lean on us. We are here to share words of encouragement, to lend a helping hand, and to share ideas so we can all get back to doing what we do best.

Submitted by Christina Holloway, Woody Creek Kids; Leslie Bixel, The Early Learning Center; Tina Person, Wildwood School; Becky Helmus, Wildwood School; Sue Way, Aspen Skiing Co.; Dawn Ryan, Aspen Mountain Tots; Alex Ryan, Aspen Mountain Tots; Carrie Tippet, The Early Learning Center; Adele Melnick, Growing Years Preschool; Kathy Coffey, Aspen Sprouts; and Robin Upper, Little Red School House.