Guest commentary: Second year of pandemic has proven to be year of contradictions for schools

Rob Stein
Guest commentary
Rob Stein

A year ago, as vaccinations were becoming widely available and COVID-19 seemed to be on the wane, I wrote a set of predictions about the year ahead. Even then, I said, “believe them at your peril,” but I promised to revisit them to see which ones came true.

I will say at the outset that I was wrong, in general, in feeling that we would have an easier year ahead. Instead, as we enter our third year of the pandemic, rather than a steady recovery, we have seen more ups, downs and contradictions than I ever would have imagined.

When vaccines started to become broadly available a year ago, it felt like everyone was excited about a gradual resumption of normal life. We anticipated that extra health and safety measures would still be in place for the 2021-22 school year, until vaccines could gradually roll out to younger age groups. I doubt anybody anticipated that vaccines would become the subject of such controversy, given that the early launch enjoyed bipartisan support.

Rather than steady improvement, wave after wave of variants would create, for every step forward, another step back. A year after the early optimism when the vaccines first became available, even with so many medical breakthroughs and greater scientific understanding of the disease, the mood is more pessimistic about when the pandemic will ever end.

A year ago, our teachers and staff members were working harder than ever at a time when our schools experienced funding cuts and pay freezes due to a struggling economy. Thanks not to the Legislature or any statewide efforts but to the generosity of local voters, we received a mill levy override to stave off a budget and staffing crisis in our schools. Meanwhile, amid gratitude and optimism about the generous infusion of local dollars into our schools, housing costs continue to rise, and the national economy is sending mixed signals.

We remain hopeful as a school district that with the infusion of new dollars into all employees’ salaries, along with an increased investment in our district’s staff housing program, we should be able to address the staff shortages in our schools. While we are enjoying so much local support for our schools, I doubt we will see a statewide restructuring of school finances for years to come.

As we looked toward a new school year this fall, we anticipated a period of calm in the aftermath of a crisis, during which we could rebuild, resystematize and make up for lost learning. Instead, severe staffing shortages and constant disruptions from COVID have made our teachers and staff members realize that they are still weathering the storm.

I hear over and over that this year, not last year, has been the most difficult year of the pandemic. Our teachers are still doing a great job in their classrooms, but it’s hard to have a methodical planning year when every planning period is interrupted to cover another class or duty. In spite of heroic efforts to make up for lost time, people who work in our schools are working their hardest just to keep up.

Our community has both drawn closer together and been driven farther apart. Partner agencies from the nonprofit and public sector have worked together like never before to stave off the ongoing social and economic impacts of the pandemic. There are countless examples of agencies responding to crises with more unity than ever before. For example, after the recent tragedy befalling two children in Glenwood Springs, we saw the church, the city, the school district and the nonprofit sector working together to respond and help our community begin the healing process.

However, not every entity is working in unison. I never anticipated an abdication of responsibility or forsaking of a mission — “working to promote health and prevent disease” — like we are seeing from the Garfield County Commissioners and Board of Health. Rather than leaning into the collaborative relationships that have been forged among school districts, hospitals, medical practices and the staff of the public health department, they have decided to pass the buck.

They have given direction to their own public health department to defer decision-making to the school boards on matters of health and disease prevention. This undermining by public officials of their own institutions might in part explain our public’s increasing lack of trust. Let’s hope the fire protection districts and law enforcement agencies don’t follow suit.

The past year, year two of the pandemic, has been both profoundly rewarding and disappointing. For the most part, it has illustrated that more can be done through local efforts than as a state or a nation. It has been a reminder that progress is never linear and that the bonds of community require effort to maintain.

Rob Stein is superintendent for Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.