Natasha Walker decided to put a face to the concerns around the potential spread of COVID-19 in the schools when she logged on to the special Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education video conference meeting Wednesday night.
Earlier this week, the Early Childhood Learning Center preschool based at Basalt Elementary School was forced to close after staff members there tested positive for COVID-19. Several others were showing symptoms and presumed to be positive.
Walker was one of those preschool teachers who tested positive.
“I thought it was important to put a face to some of the statistics,” Walker said, adding that two weeks after preschool students returned to the building, she and her own daughter tested positive.
“It was right on the coattails of a holiday (Labor Day) weekend, and I brought the COVID virus to my mother in Colorado Springs, who is 86 years old and is now hospitalized,” Walker said.
“We are not just a statistic. We are people with flesh and blood and stories and struggles that are coming from going back live,” she said.
That anecdote was backed by a chorus of concerns expressed by dozens of district teachers during the special board session.
With recent case statistics and new metrics in mind, it’s back to October, at the very earliest, before the school district can safely return even its youngest students back to the classroom.
Most of the shift in direction from another lengthy and sometimes contentious meeting on Sept. 9 has to do with a recent new uptick in the COVID-19 case rate within the district.
The school board had hoped to hear a plan Wednesday for kindergarten through third-grade students to move from online distance learning to school buildings for in-person classroom instruction starting Sept. 28.
Instead — bolstered by newly revised data and input from local public health officials — the board backed away from committing to or pushing for any specific dates for that return.
“This is a lot different than what we originally thought we would be looking at this week,” board President Jen Rupert said near the end of the more than 51/2-hour-long meeting.
She echoed other board members who noted that the direction they gave last week for district staff to fast-track the K-3 classroom return was based on more encouraging statistics at that time.
The district’s executive staff did present a plan during the meeting Wednesday, after more than two hours of public comments from teachers, parents and even one student.
The return plan will rely on a data metrics system now being used by the state to determine the safety level for certain activities, such as in-person schooling and other large gatherings of people, to resume or continue.
Since last week, those metrics have changed somewhat, and not in favor of returning to in-person instruction.
The new “COVID Dial” being used by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — measuring the two-week case rate per 100,000 people, test positivity rate and daily hospitalization rate — puts Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties in the Safer at Home “Concern–Level 2.”
Last week, the tri-county area was fairly comfortably in the “Cautious–Level 1” range, based on those three primary measures.
Not particularly unexpected, though, was a surge in the rate of new coronavirus cases and a spike in the test positivity rate following Labor Day weekend.
In Garfield County alone, the case rate per 100,000 people rose from 53.3 last Friday to 93.2 as of Wednesday. The county’s test positivity rate went from less than 4% last week to 5.1% this week.
Under the plan presented Wednesday, for the Roaring Fork Schools to consider returning students to the classroom, even at the younger grade levels, it would need to be at Level 1 for two straight weeks.
That means a consistent test positivity rate of 5% or less, a case rate of less than 75 cases per 100,000, and no more than two new COVID-19 hospital admissions per day.
For now, the three counties only qualify under the latter metric related to hospitalizations.
The plan also advises that high school students would not return to in-person classes until the state’s least-restrictive Protect Our Neighbors level is achieved. Only five counties in the entire state — Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Gunnison and Gilpin — have kept their infection rate low enough to be in that category.
The school board has its regular meeting on Sept. 23, when the plan and various protocols that will be expected of parents, students, teachers and staff when in-person learning does resume will be further discussed.
The school board’s backtracking on the reopening plan Wednesday was punctuated by comments from dozens of teachers who said they do not believe it’s a good idea to fast-track a return to the classroom without more time to prepare.
“Yes, we need a plan, and yes we need to be getting more students gradually into school as quickly as it is safely possible. But let’s do it right, let’s do it slowly, and let’s do it once,” said Carbondale Crystal River Elementary School teacher Danny Stone.
Michelle Weaver, a new teacher at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs, said she’s concerned about returning to the classroom because her own child is at higher risk for contracting the disease due to a birth defect.
“I don’t see what the rush is,” she said. “We need to prioritize safety over urgency.”
A survey of district teachers and staff taken at the end of last week revealed that, even under the Safer at Home Level 1 precautions, 18.6% indicated they “might not return to work with in-person learning,” while the vast majority, 72.5%, said they would return.
Carbondale Middle School teacher Rhonda Tathum, who is president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association, the local teachers union, said RFCA members were disappointed with the school board’s direction last week to try to get kids back in the classroom by Sept. 28.
“Educators want nothing more than to be back with our students, but we want to do so in a safe environment,” she said.
Glenwood Springs High School teacher Jessica Meyer said she has a health condition and is also 14 weeks pregnant, which places her in the high-risk category for serious complications if she were to contract COVID-19. A return to in-person classes is simply not possible for her, she said.
Glenwood Middle School teacher Autumn Rivera said it’s unrealistic to think school will be normal this year, even when students are able to return to in-person classes.
“We need to stop thinking about going back to the life we had, and work to deal with the situation that we’re in,” she said.
Some teachers who spoke at last week’s meeting said they would be comfortable having students return to the classroom, as long as proper safety measures are in place.
Several parents also spoke during the special session Wednesday, but the majority this week were supportive of the teachers’ point of view. That stood in contrast to the Sept. 9 meeting when the majority of the more than 20 parents who spoke said it was time to get kids back in school buildings.
Glenwood Elementary School parent Keisha Haughton urged the district to retain the option for parents to keep their children on distance learning through at least December.
“We plan to exercise that option,” Haughton said.
Basalt parent Brooke Allen urged fellow parents to listen to the public health experts and support the district in making an informed decision about returning to in-person learning.
“Most of the parents who spoke last week have a misunderstanding of the issue,” Allen said. “There are many in our valley who are truly suffering … this decision is not about fitting our personal schedules and desires.”
Others who spoke Wednesday reiterated a desire for in-person learning to resume sooner rather than later.
“These kids should not be doing online learning day after day,” said parent Lori Welch. “We’re told that children’s screen time should be limited. This is horrible.
“The numbers are as low as they are ever going to be. We need our kids to have that social interaction,” Welch said.
Glenwood Springs parent Stacey Gavrell shared that she has one child at Sopris Elementary School and another at a non-district school that started the year with in-person classes. The district schools need to give it a chance, she said.
“I worry that if we don’t assertively offer in-person learning options, we will be creating new challenges in the area of mental health for all of our students,” she said.