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Aspen students returning from weeklong spring break trips must show negative COVID-19 test, district says

Arden Kaywin, right, looks back at Wesley Lodal, 7, self-administering a COVID-19 in the backseat of their car at Aspen Middle School on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Aspen School District will require all students and staff who leave Pitkin County for eight or more days during the upcoming spring break to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test in order to return to in-person learning, Superintendent David Baugh announced Tuesday night.

“Obviously we’re still in the middle of this global pandemic,” Baugh said in a video message to the school district community.

“We’re heading into a holiday week, and we’ve always seen a spike after the holidays,” he said.

The traveler advisory adds a new layer to the district’s ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts and will hopefully prevent massive classroom quarantines after students return from vacation during the Monday to April 4 break. (Students also have April 5 off because it is a teacher work day.)

Free testing will be available April 5 on campus for all school district students, parents and staff; the turnaround for results could be between 15 minutes and 48 hours depending on which tests are used, Baugh said in a phone interview. The district also offers free weekly testing every Tuesday through the district’s testing partner, COVIDCheck Colorado.

Students who seek testing elsewhere can submit their results to an online portal.

Aspen Country Day School, an independent K-8 school, has already announced it will require proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three to five days of the return to in-person learning for all students after spring break, according to a status update posted Friday and the school’s pandemic-related policies document for the 2020-21 academic year.

Students there have been on spring break since Monday and will have access to free on-campus asymptomatic testing April 5 before class resumes April 6.

This is the first time that the district has implemented its own post-travel COVID-19 testing requirement, Baugh said, though a similar countywide program has applied in the past.

The now-inactive Pitkin County Traveler Affidavit Program was still in effect during winter break, requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test from any visitor or resident returning after 10 or more days outside the county. Aspen School District’s new traveler advisory is similar but shortened that period to eight or more days because the spring break is only nine days long, Baugh said.

The countywide affidavit program has been replaced by the Traveler Responsibility Code effective March 5; the code does not require proof of a negative test but does ask visitors and returning residents to sign an online form acknowledging current public health travel guidelines.

“We’re excited that we can offer (testing to the school district community) and we’re trying to avoid the massive quarantines,” Baugh said. Though a student may miss one day of in-person learning while awaiting test results from home, that outcome is far preferable to a student testing positive after coming back to school, requiring an entire class to quarantine, Baugh said.

“It’s all part of the community keeping one anther safe,” he said.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

As students return from quarantines, Aspen School District concerned about spring break COVID uptick

Aspen School District will see a “net gain” in in-person attendance this week as 140 students and staff return to school after required quarantines, according to Superintendent David Baugh.

He said Monday that 23 students and staff entered quarantine after exposure to a presumed positive case.

Fifty students and staff returned Monday and 46 more can return Tuesday.

Another 44 are cleared for a return to school March 28 but won’t actually attend in-person classes until after spring break scheduled for next week (March 29 to April 5). That group includes several dozen lower-grade Aspen Elementary School students who had to quarantine for 14 days after they were exposed to a student with a suspected case of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19.

In the past 14 days, the school district has recorded nine positive cases of COVID-19: three students and one teacher at Aspen Elementary School, four students at Aspen Middle School and one student at Aspen High School, according to the school district’s online COVID-19 data dashboard as of Monday evening.

That dashboard also indicates 131 students and 16 staff in quarantine March 21, but that number is not up-to-date with this week’s groups returning and newly quarantining individuals, Baugh said.

“We’ve designed intentionally to have most of the kids in school. … Quarantine is just the nature of this year,” Baugh said.

Pitkin County Public Health epidemiologist Josh Vance wrote in an email that the suspected B.1.1.7 case identified in an Aspen Elementary School student earlier this month is still pending sequencing and has not been confirmed. The public health team is “aggressively testing close contacts” of those with identified variant cases to identify any new suspected cases in the community, Vance wrote.

Baugh said he is concerned that the district could see an uptick in cases — and quarantined cohorts — as students take vacations during spring break.

“Could it be worse after spring break? I think it could,” he said. As much as he would like to see low COVID-19 case numbers in the district after the break, “hope isn’t a plan,” Baugh said.

The district will offer free testing to families and teachers April 5 at Aspen Middle School to help identify possible cases before they enter the classroom.

All schools continue to follow Pitkin County’s “Five Commitments of Containment” (mask-wearing, hand-washing, social-distancing, staying home when sick and testing and self-reporting when symptomatic), though that social distance can now be just three feet instead of six according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think they’re about six months overdue on making that announcement,” Baugh said Monday.

Some teachers have already begun rearranging their classrooms to embrace the 3-foot rule, he said; those changes are at the discretion of the teacher.

“We’ve always tried to maintain (that distance) as much as we could, knowing full well that you can’t in schools maintain 6 feet,” Baugh said. ‘We’ve relied on the other containments far more.”

Pitkin County’s move from Yellow- to Orange-level restrictions starting Wednesday won’t significantly impact school operations, Baugh confirmed.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Teen Spotlight: With the International Baccalaureate program, is no stress better than no credit?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme is one of the many qualities that makes Aspen High School the esteemed public school it is.

To earn the full diploma, students must take six IB classes — most of which are two-year courses — write a 4,000-word essay and participate in a Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) project. Students are required to sacrifice their time, and sometimes their personal activities, to successfully complete the program.

It’s common for juniors and seniors to take at least one IB class, but enrolling in the program in which students can earn a full IB diploma has gained popularity in the past few years. We all hear that the program is the best preparation we will get for college. But is that enough reward to make the commitment worth it?

Macy Hopkinson, a senior at Aspen High School, signed up to complete the IB Diploma because she “wanted to challenge (herself) in all areas and subjects,” she said. Enrolling in the IB Diploma program comes with the expectation that students understand the level of commitment mandatory to succeed, and students who are prepared tend to flourish within the course.

“It was definitely a lot harder than I expected, and I had to put in more work than I thought, but it was worth it,” Hopkinson said. “(The IB diploma) has been very helpful because it taught me so many valuable lessons that will help me succeed in college and in life. It also taught me that I could learn difficult material if I just put in the time.”

But not everyone finds that the program is the best fit for them, including both of us columnists.

As a senior at Aspen High School, I (Ava Thornely) don’t regret my decision to forego the IB diploma for other opportunities; if I had signed up, I wouldn’t have been able to take journalism.

I am so fortunate I was able to take classes in subjects I want to continue to study in the future rather than take classes that would look good when applying to colleges. Now that I have had this experience in journalism, I believe I will be just as prepared for my intended path as someone who earns their IB diploma will be for theirs.

The freedom of a non-IB schedule opens up other opportunities to engage in some of the many unique electives Aspen High School provides, including woodworking, yoga instructor certification and aviation.

Those options include the Aspen Mountain Guide School course, which my co-columnist Stef Wojcik completes this year.

I (Stef Wojcik) am also a senior at Aspen High School; I started as an IB diploma candidate but later decided to drop the program. Though I’m still enrolled in multiple IB classes and see the value in taking rigorous courses, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my athletic, social and service commitments. Though the IB diploma program aims to help students think more critically, it does so on a restricted schedule.

The Aspen Mountain Guide School course, which has provided me with several certifications in different areas of outdoor guiding, heavily weighed my decision. I now have the tools, knowledge and benefit to work in my fields of interest.

Some students thrive in the learning format of the diploma program, but for others, it’s difficult to balance personal interests and the opportunities presented by the program. As an ex-diploma candidate, I am thankful I chose the path I did, even without the rewards of earning the diploma.

Students who earn their IB diploma feel equally as prepared as those who don’t — just for different pathways. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide if they will feel more prepared for college by taking classes that you are passionate about, even without the repute of taking a rigorous class, or if they will leave the exploration time for their college experience.

Teen Spotlight columnists Ava Thornely and Stef Wojcik are seniors at Aspen High School and contributors to the Skier Scribbler school newspaper. Thornely and Wojcik have both worked at the paper for three years.

Aspen students quarantined after student presumed to have more contagious strain

Pitkin County health and Aspen school officials are awaiting the results of roughly 30 to 35 COVID-19 tests given Friday to mostly lower-grade elementary students and two teachers to see if they are afflicted with a more contagious variant of the coronavirus.

Pitkin County Public Health administered Friday’s tests after a student at the elementary school tested positive for what is suspected to be a variation of the coronavirus, resulting in the quarantine of two classes. The result is some 30 families with elementary school children are in quarantine, according to Superintendent David Baugh.

The student is believed to have the B117 variant, which was first found in the U.K. in December. The student has symptoms but did not require hospitalization.

The test from the student with the suspected variant will be further analyzed this weekend at a state lab for confirmation. The B117 strain is believed to transmit more easily — 30% to 35% higher, Pitkin County epidemiogist Josh Vance said Friday afternoon — but its long-term health risks remain unknown.

It would be the first time a student at the district has been known to have a strain of the coronavirus; Pitkin County has one confirmed variant case so far, Vance said. That case is unrelated to the one at the school, he said.

Baugh emailed the school community after 9 p.m. Thursday with the news.

“To be transparent, we learned late this afternoon there is the possibility of a variant exposure of Covid-19 and Pitkin County Health, with the assistance of our medical team, informed about 30 of our families that the quarantine would be extended by 4 days. That is the only change in the status of those currently quarantining. That and they are being requested to test for the variant virus — this testing will be under the guidance of Pitkin County Health.”

Speaking Friday, Baugh said: “The tests aren’t just to see if they are positive, they are to see what kind of strain of COVID-19 it is.”

Vance said shortly after 5 p.m. Friday results were expected to come back within 48 hours.

The school hasn’t been administering asymptomatic Curative tests since Jan. 20; elementary students currently aren’t being tested, while the middle and high school are using Aspen Covid Testing, which are administered nasally.

The family of the elementary school student with the suspected variant had the student tested independent of the district, Vance and Baugh said.

At the middle school, roughly 43 students and “several staff” are in quarantine, but Baugh said Friday the variant appears to be restricted to the elementary school at this time.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

 

Outstanding Teacher Awards organized by Summit54 recognize elementary educators throughout Roaring Fork Valley

The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent are partnering with Summit54, an education nonprofit in Aspen, to help acknowledge the hard work of educators who have gone above and beyond during COVID-19 in the lower valley through Outstanding Teacher Awards.

The nonprofit announced award this week, and the only rules for nominations are that teachers cannot be nominated by family members and must currently teach in any of the elementary schools in Basalt, Carbondale or Glenwood Springs. The Post Independent and The Aspen Times will run a special insert announcing the top three teachers from each town in their May 19 publications.

There will be cash prizes for each of the nine winners $5,000 for first place, $2,500 for second place and $1,000 for third place. People who submit nominations on behalf of teachers should include stories that highlight how they’ve felt inspired by their actions throughout the pandemic. A news release states applications should consider including supplemental information such as photos, video testimonials or children’s artwork.

Applicants should consider a few things when submitting nominations: Give examples why you believe this teacher has gone above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic? How has a teacher demonstrated courage, acted fearlessly on behalf of his/her students, gave selflessly to support students’ well-being, or showed special kindness to students during COVID-19?

The deadline to submit nominations is 5 p.m. April 15 through the online link that can be found at summit54.org. The application forms required are available in English and Spanish. To mail in an application, it should be postmarked by April 12 to be received by April 15. Mailed nominations should be sent to Summit54, 625 E. Main St., Ste. 102B-115 Aspen CO 81611.

For more details on how the awards or how to submit a nomination visit the Summit54 website.

Aspen School District joins districts statewide against spring assessments

Citing fallout from the pandemic, a resolution unanimously passed by the Aspen School District Board of Education on Tuesday supports canceling state spring assessment tests.

“Whereas, the mental health of students and staff has been seriously and negatively impacted by stress and concerns related to the pandemic and would be unnecessarily exacerbated by mandatory … state assessments this spring, particularly in light of the academic difficulties teachers and students are already facing due to the pandemic,” said part of the resolution.

Aspen joins Denver, Boulder and other Colorado school districts opposed to giving students end-of-the-year standardized tests known as CMAS — Colorado Measures of Academic Success.

Colorado students in third- through eighth-grades take CMAS to test their literacy in English language arts and proficiency in math. CMAS science tests are given to students in fifth- and eighth-grade, as well as high school juniors.

The Colorado Department of Education has scheduled CMAS to be given April 12 through May 14.

“We are assuming that everything is moving forward,“ Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry told the board Tuesday of the tests.

Colorado received a government waiver last year to cancel CMAS tests that spring because of the pandemic. This year, the tests are scheduled to take place, and Gov. Jared Polis has indicated he supports the testing to see which school districts are in most need of financial support to address academic shortcomings.

According to the Colorado Department of Education website, “While there is still uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact this year’s instructional settings, a typical state assessment administration season is scheduled to resume in spring 2021 as required by state and federal law. As with most aspects of education, state assessments may need to be adjusted in response to COVID-19 conditions. We will continue to monitor state and federal assessment requirements and expectations as the school year progresses across Colorado and as COVID-19 responses evolve this year.”

The Aspen school board and school officials remain supportive of PSAT and SAT college entrance exams for high school students.

“The CMAS testing is more problematic for our students just because we’re in school, we’re out of school, we’re remote, we’re in person,” ASD Superintendent David Baugh said of the 2020-21 school year, which has seen Aspen schools regularly changing class schedules and learning arrangements because of the pandemic.

In-person classes currently are ongoing at the elementary, middle and high schools.

The ASD resolution also had the support of the District Accountability Committee, which said in a statement attached to the board’s agenda that it wants SATs to remain in place this year.

Colorado residents divided on issue

A survey commissioned Jan. 5 to 10 by Democrats for Education Reform, Ready Colorado and Colorado Succeeds said 46% of 600 respondents — all registered voters — favored students taking the tests, with 41% opposed. Administered by Telluride-based Keating Research, the same poll showed 62% of the respondents in favor of end-of-year testing if the CMAS results were not used for teacher or school accountability and used strictly to assess student performance. Twenty-five percent were in opposition.

Advocates of spring testing argue that assessing students’ progress is equally as important now as it when there is not a pandemic.

“Not testing, not measuring a student’s academic growth and progress, and not looking after the students’ educational health is a disservice to these children and amounts to abandonment,” wrote state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer (R-District 23, which encompasses Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties), in an op-ed published Tuesday in The Denver Post.

“Assessments have always been one important tool for measuring student progress,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of Education Initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, in a media statement issued earlier this month. “This year, when students’ worlds have been upended and schools have employed dramatically different models of instruction, they’re essential for understanding the impact that COVID-19 has had on our kids and where opportunity gaps have widened.”

Yet another survey — the results of which were released Feb. 4 by Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance — showed approximately 58% of 729 respondents (also registered voters) in favor of canceling spring tests. Thirty-eight percent supported holding the standardized exams. Boulder-based Harstad Strategic Research administered the survey Jan. 19 to 24.

“We care deeply about making sure all our students are learning, especially during the pandemic,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association, in a statement. “But when students and educators are struggling, bouncing between in-person, virtual and hybrid learning depending on the COVID-19 conditions in their community, administering the CMAS this spring would be irresponsible. The wisest thing to do is to focus every single second on instruction so our students are able to concentrate on learning and maintaining their mental health until the pandemic subsides.”

Testing alone takes up “on CMAS is expected to be less than 1.5 percent of typical students’ total instructional time,” according to CDE.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccinations were administered to ASD faculty and staff Friday and more doses will be given this Friday, Baugh told the board. About 260 people, an estimated 85% participation rate for ASD, were vaccinated last week, Baugh said.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Aspen schools closed for Thursday after major snowstorm rolls through

Classes have been canceled for Thursday for students in the Aspen School District after a storm dropped more than a foot of snow in the area, officials announced Thursday morning.

The storm started Wednesday afternoon and picked up into the evening and overnight.

Monday was the first week for many students to return to on-campus learning.

According to the district policy: “When schools are closed all scheduled activities in the school building are canceled and sports events and practices are postponed.”

 

Aspen teacher vaccinations could be drawn-out process, superintendent cautions

Gov. Jared Polis’ recent announcement to start inoculating day care workers, teachers and others on the front lines of education is welcome news to the Aspen School District, but the vaccination supply chain poses a “huge stumbling block” to administer shots in a timely manner, according to Superintendent David Baugh.

Polis said Friday teachers would start receiving vaccinations Feb. 8 with the state reserving about one third of its supply for “all student-facing staff” in Colorado.

At Monday’s Board of Education meeting, however, Baugh cautioned the rate at which Pitkin County is receiving doses will prolong the vaccination process.

“If we can get 200 doses a week,” Baugh said of the supply Pitkin County receives, “we only get a third of those for teachers. It’s going to take awhile to get everybody fully inoculated.”

Baugh said 580 individuals in Pitkin County will be eligible for vaccinations next week because they work in education. Getting jabbed is another story.

“There is a huge stumbling block to Feb. 8,” Baugh said. “And it’s the supply chains; they are not delivering the doses. And that’s going to be our biggest stumbling block to getting educators vaccinated in a timely manner.”

Pitkin County vaccinated 1,100 residents Jan. 14 to 15 at the Benedict Music Tent. The second and final round of 1,000 doses will be given this week, along with another 100 first-round shots, County Manager Jon Peacock told commissioners at a meeting Tuesday.

Residents currently being vaccinated are part of the 1B phrase of distribution; recipients include those at least 70-years-old, moderate-risk health care workers and first-responders.

The county had expected 1,450 first doses to be given this week but that order was canceled, Peacock said.

Teachers associations both local and statewide acknowledged Polis’ inclusion of workers in the education field as a critical step to lowering the risk of COVI9-19 transmissions on campus.

“Superintendents and local union leaders will be working together with local public health authorities to create implementation plans for the vaccination, which should be arriving within a week or so of Feb. 8,” the Aspen Education Association, the representative group for Aspen public teachers, said in a statement issued Friday. “Aspen Education Association and the Aspen School District, together with local providers, look forward to rolling out vaccines to our hard-working staff members within the next few weeks. We are excited to be working together to continue the hard work of members of the Aspen School District on vaccinations, continued testing and maintaining the many, many layers of protection to provide the highest levels of education possible during an extremely trying year.”

The Colorado Education Association also issued a statement.

“For the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to take a tremendous toll on educators, students, and their families. While we believe that all essential workers should be a priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, this is a gigantic step toward our longstanding goal of getting our students back into classrooms, where the best learning takes place.“

Student-facing staff qualified for vaccinations “includes child care workers, teachers (full-time, substitutes and student teachers), school nurses (if not already vaccinated), classroom paraprofessionals, school bus drivers, school cafeteria food service staff, custodial staff, school counselors, school administrators, administrative staff and staff providing safety and other support services offered inside the school or child care program,” the governor stated in a Jan. 29-dated letter to educational leaders in Colorado.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Aspen School Board member’s apology comes too late for some teachers

A board member’s apology to teachers, a survey critical of school district leadership, and a faculty dispirited by the pandemic provided for a sobering discussion of Aspen School District’s state of affairs during a virtual meeting held Monday.

“Some of this stuff is really hard to hear,” said Superintendent David Baugh, adding “this is a time of high tension, high stress.”

Baugh’s comments came after a presentation of Aspen Education Association results from a survey conducted Jan. 12 to 17. Survey results from the AEA, the representative arm of district teachers, showed 52.4% of the 103 respondents planned to remain at the district. Another 19.4% said they were either leaving the district or seriously considering it, and an additional 26.2% replied they either weren’t sure or preferred not to answer the question.

“This means that we could lose over 50 staff members,” the survey said. “This is NOT the entire ASD population, only AEA members.”

Monday was a milestone of sorts since the pandemic hit last year: For the first time since March, students from preschool through high school were on campus at the same time on the same day and not under a hybrid-learning structure.

But instead of teachers updating officials about how the day went with their students under pandemic-related restrictions, they were spelling out their frustrations to a board and administration they said have lacked empathy and appreciation for their efforts under daunting conditions.

Aside from the survey results, teachers have been publicly expressing their issues with the district’s management of the pandemic crisis — from how it determines when students and teachers return to class to more recently how it compiles its COVID-19 dashboard data — since the pandemic started last spring. Comments from school board member Katy Frisch calling out educators at a Jan. 18 meeting, however, touched off the greatest public uproar so far from teachers and also an AEA statement condemning her remarks.

At the time Frisch made her statement suggesting teachers were partly to blame for case spread and quarantines, Pitkin County had one of top 20 highest incidence rates in the country, and the district was hobbled by a teacher shortage brought on by quarantines.

“While I do appreciate the teachers and everything they have done,“ Frisch said at the meeting, ”there have been some very poor decisions recently, and through the fall as well, that have contributed to classes needing to go to remote — entire grade levels to go to remote.

“Just to put it in context, when staff gets together outside of the classroom, or outside of the day, during lunch, whatever it is, the decision that ends up happening where people are gathering without masks in whatever environment, turns to lots of kids ending up going to remote, and perhaps it’s also kids doing poor decisions.”

Frisch offered a prepared apology near the beginning of the meeting during board member comments.

“I am sorry that my comments at the last board meeting caused stress to some and may have been demoralizing to others,” Frisch said. “This was certainly not my intention. My focus remains on the children and the families of our district, and providing a voice at this table for our families.

“I was merely trying to emphasize the importance of vigilance to try to follow established protocols and mitigate the quarantines and any potential spread in our community. I was not placing blame on any individuals, but calling attention to our community as a whole.“

Frisch emphasized she is just one member on a board of five. Even so, from a teacher who said Frisch’s comments clearly singled her out, to another who said the remarks were the final straw for her decision to leave the district, educators said they were not only wearing down from the pandemic’s classroom struggles, but also from a lack of appreciation and empathy from the district’s administration and school board.

Sixth-grade teacher Kristin Zodrow was one of those teachers. She said she tested positive for COVID-19 days before Frisch’s remarks at the January meeting. The board member’s comments were aimed at Zodrow, the teacher said.

“When I received the results of my positive test and then I went into a phase of being very scared, and then I was very sad to hear what was happening at the board meeting,“ Zodrow said. ”Casting judgment and making unfounded accusations in a public forum about teacher behavior was inappropriate. I felt publicly shamed by someone who chose to use their time to criticize and embarrass instead of showcase empathy, respect and compassion.“

Salting the wound, Zodrow said, was that she was exposed to the virus “by showing up every day, just doing our job.”

Zodrow called for an end to the “toxic, dismissive communication that is taking place” in school board meetings and embracing “unwavering compassion for each other, for our school staff, and especially for our front-line teaching staff.”

Zodrow’s comments came after Frisch made her apology, which did not compel the teacher to change course with her statement.

“I was the sixth-grade teacher. I was the one who tested positive. I was the one that was referenced for shutting the sixth-grade down, and to hear comments like that when I was already in isolation just me, myself and I being scared, … it just felt like I was being kicked while I was down.”

Teacher and coach Larissa Bohn said Frisch’s remarks were consistent with what she has been hearing at past board meetings since March.

However, she said, “I’m going to be completely honest with you: The comments from the last board meeting absolutely catalyzed my decision to put in my two-weeks notice on Friday. I do not want to be part of a system that continues to bully the people I love — teachers.”

Frisch wasn’t just the recipient of criticism. Stephanie Nixon, who heads the AEA, said Frisch recently reached out to her over the polarizing comments. Nixon said conversations like the one she had with Frisch are integral to the district’s moving forward positively.

“I found it very valuable for her to reach out to me this week and I think that we are moving in a good direction,” Nixon said. “And I just really appreciate that, and I think that hopefully it’s going to help me become a better leader as well.”

Other teachers, like Casey Cunningham at the elementary school, said parents have let their kids attend class knowing they had COVID-19 symptoms.

“There have been several teachers that have become ill following parents breaking protocols,” she said. “Of these cases, one of the teachers went to emergent care twice over the holidays, and another is having heart complications due to COVID that Pitkin County traced back to our schools.”

Cunningham said cases are being transmitted on campus but the district won’t report that information.

“Our admin has a responsibility to report transmissions that have occurred in our school to the papers and in our COVID scale,” she said, saying parents, teachers and students would behave differently knowing the disease has spread on campus.

The district, in response to questions last week from The Aspen Times about how it reports its cases on the dashboard, said the online tool is intended “to show trends, it’s not the end-all-to-be-all record. … We are reporting numbers that are made available to us which includes our testing. We do not always get names of other students who test outside of us and we cannot require parents (of a high schooler who has not been in school per say) reach out to the nurse to let us know.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Aspen Sister Cities virtual exchanges continue tradition of cross-cultural connection

Students and teachers in Aspen and Shimukappu, Japan meet via Zoom for a virtual Aspen Sister Cities exchange on Jan. 27, 2021.

It was 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and eight middle school students — four in their homes in Aspen and four in a classroom in Shimukappu, Japan, plus a few teachers and translators on both ends — were practicing their greetings over Zoom: Hellos and konichiwas all around.

Students thanked each other for gifts they sent in December (hats sent to Shimukappu, candy and pens to Aspen). They presented slideshows about holiday traditions. They discussed winter sports (some were bigger fans than others) and tasty treats (mochi was a big hit).

Despite the barrier of a screen and a few thousand miles between them, a tradition of cultural exchange continued: Wednesday’s meeting was the latest in a series of virtual gatherings between local students and their overseas counterparts coordinated by Aspen Sister Cities.

Students would normally meet face to face during international exchanges orchestrated by Aspen Sister Cities. The organization maintains relationships with seven sister cities on four continents: Bariloche, Argentina; Abetone, Italy; Davos, Switzerland; Chamonix, France; Queenstown, New Zealand; Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; and Shimukappu.

But with world travel off the table due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have turned to a digital format to keep the spirit of global friendship alive.

An October student exchange with Bariloche was the first iteration; once a month meetings with the students in Shimukappu began late last year and will continue once a month through March.

It may not be the same as a long-haul flight and two weeks in a foreign country, but “it’s the next best thing,” said Jill Sheeley, the president of Aspen Sister Cities. “When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, and that’s what these kids are doing.”

And though a Zoom meeting is no replacement for a cultural immersion, Shimukappu city coordinator Kamala Marsh said that the virtual experience has its value as a learning opportunity and mode of communication. Marsh is a world languages teacher at Aspen Middle School and serves as a liaison and organizer for the Shimukappu exchange.

“When you’re in person, you have to really examine your values, and you have to examine their values, and you have to really be in someone else’s shoes,” Marsh said. “But I think there is a tremendous amount to be learned from meeting people and communicating with them, even virtually. … All I’m hoping is that they get a window opened to another world and another life.”

Marsh has spent nearly two decades volunteering to coordinate the annual exchange, but her history with the organization dates back to the origins of the Aspen-Shimukappu partnership. After the two cities formalized their “sister city” status in 1991, Marsh was the first to participate in an Aspen Sister Cities English teaching program in Shimukappu.

“It changed my life,” Marsh said. “In the end, we learned so much about each other’s cultures. And we each changed in ways that we never imagined would happen.”

Other Aspenites have followed in her footsteps and forged a tradition of connections with a community halfway across the world.

Corey Lucks attended one of the first student exchanges in the early 1990s and returned to Shimukappu after college to participate in the English teaching program. He fell in love, started a family and has been there ever since; he now runs a restaurant with his wife but continues to help with the exchanges and communication between the two cities.

Shimukappu liaison Ben Belinski had the same full circle experience: He first visited when he was in middle school as part of an Aspen Sister Cities exchange and returned last March to begin his tenure in the English teacher role.

Celebrating the two cities’ history — albeit from afar — helps maintain the longstanding connection, Belinski said.

“There’s a strong friendship that we can’t forget about,” Belinski said. “It’s about making sure that students feel connected to each other even across that vast distance. … I’m definitely wanting to encourage as much communication between cultures as possible.”

The Aspen native currently teaches English in Shimukappu through a program established by Aspen Sister Cities and helps facilitate virtual meetings with his students across the pond.

Belinski admits there are challenges to leading the meetings over Zoom — technical difficulties, mostly, and moments when the students need a bit of encouragement to keep the conversation going.

“They’re so into it and so stoked, and then they’re just so reserved and not talkative and shy and scared, so it’s a funky balance,” Belinski said. “There’s so much desire, like they so badly want to be a part of this, and they want to make friends and they want to communicate and learn.”

But the hiccups along the way just make successful connections all the more valuable, Belinski said.

“At its best, I see it as a great way to connect people across the world who might be living different lives but are actually living through very similar circumstances,” Belinski said. “If anything, COVID has really shown how connected the whole world is this year, and I think we just forget about it sometimes, but we’re just so instantaneously bonded with all the other people around the world.”

kwilliams@aspentimes.com