| AspenTimes.com

COVID-19 caution postpones area schools’ classroom return plan

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 plan

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.

Teachers’ take

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.

Parent perspectives

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.

jstroud@postindependent.com

COVID caution sign goes up on Roaring Fork Schools’ classroom return plan

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 meeting Wednesday night.

Earlier this week, the Early Childhood Learning Center preschool based at Basalt Elementary School was forced to close after two staff members there tested positive for COVID-19, and another was showing symptoms.

Walker was one of those preschool teachers who tested positive.

“I’m here to put a face to the statistics,” Walker said, adding that two weeks after preschool students were allowed to return to the building, she and her own two older children tested positive.

“This came on the tail end of the (Labor Day) holiday weekend, after I unknowingly brought the COVID virus to my 86-year-old mother in Colorado Springs. She’s now hospitalized,” Walker said.

“We are not just a statistic. We are people with flesh and blood and stories,” she said.

With that, and a chorus of concerns expressed by dozens of teachers during the board session, it’s back to October, at the very earliest, for the school district to get its youngest students back in the classroom.

Most of that 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.

She echoed other board members who noted that the direction they gave last week for district staff to fast-track the return was based on more encouraging statistics related to COVID-19 at that time.

A plan was presented to the board during a 5-and-a-half-hour-long videoconference meeting Wednesday, including more than two hours of public comments.

However, it 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, to resume or continue.

Just in the last week, those metrics have changed.

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, all three, in the “Concern” Level 2.

Last week, the tri-county area was comfortably in the “Cautious” Level 1 range, based on those three primary measures.

Not particularly unexpected was a surge in the rate of new coronavirus cases and a spike in the test positivity rate following the 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 test positivity rate went from less than 4% to 5.1%.

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, only the latter metric puts the three local counties at Level 1.

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’s backtracking 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 implement the plan.

“We need a plan. Let’s do it right, and let’s do it slowly,” said Carbondale 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.”

jstroud@postindependent.com

Community transmission rate a roadblock for Aspen schools

The unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 on youth as well as a 40% rate of community transmission are two of the main reasons why the Aspen middle and high schools remain closed to in-person learning, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist said Wednesday.

The bigger concern isn’t about an outbreak at the schools, but “it’s the kids getting infected. What are the long-term effects?” epidemiologist Josh Vance said during a Zoom conference presented by the Aspen School District and Aspen Family Connections.

Longer-term symptoms with youth “remains unknown,” un.org reported Tuesday, and Vance said there’s just not enough completed research into the effects of a virus that hasn’t been around for one year.

The other factor keeping schools closed is community transmission, which is when the original source of a virus spread cannot be identified. Pitkin County’s rate is 40% whereas a safe level for opening schools is between 5% and 10%, he said.

“If we reduce transmission in the community, I know we will feel better about the schools opening,” Vance said.

The ASD also has a task force working on a reopening plan and “how it is going to occur and when it is going to occur,” Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry said.

The principals of the elementary, middle and high schools are scheduled to present their reopenings at Monday’s board of education meeting.

The decision to open the schools ultimately rests with Superintendent David Baugh, Mulberry said, noting that call will be informed by local and state health recommendations.

Not all of the school district is closed.

The K-8 Aspen Community School in Woody Creek is open to in-person classes, the Cottage preschool re-opened after closing due to an infected student, and Aspen Elementary School debuted its hybrid model Sept. 8. Under that system, one cohort of students attends classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Friday. Wednesday is set aside for teacher planning.

Middle and high school students began remote learning the last week of August.

The Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s color-coded dial dashboard that debuted this week classified Pitkin County on Wednesday as “Safer Level 2: Concern,” under which metric the state suggests K-12 public schools use “in-person, hybrid or remote as appropriate.”

Counties in that Safe Level 2 zone have a COVID-19 incidence rate of 75 to 175 cases per 100,000 residents. Pitkin County’s rate was 78.8, keeping it shy of “Safer Level 1: Cautious.” Under that level, the CDHE says “in-person suggested, or hybrid, remote as appropriate.”

The CDHE recommends in-person learning when counties are in the “Protect Our Neighbors” category. Five of Colorado’s 64 counties — Gilpin, Gunnison, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco — were in that zone Wednesday.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

School board directs Roaring Fork Schools to implement in-person instruction for K-3 by Sept. 28

The Roaring Fork School Board moved to get kindergarten through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28.

The decision came after nearly four hours of presentation, public comment and board discussion Wednesday evening.

During public comment, the mental health of students and families came up as a serious and overlooked problem with distance learning.

Stein presentation

Superintendent Rob Stein opened this part of the board meeting with a nearly half-hour presentation explaining the district’s decision-making process on when to open back up to in-person learning.

He said the district’s three counties — Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — use different data for their coronameters, hampering the ability to make decisions on consistent criteria.

The state is coming out with its own coronameter, called the dial, that will solve that inconsistency, but for now the district has cobbled together metrics from various sources.

One is the Harvard Global Health Institute, which recommends waiting to open schools until the COVID incidence rate is below 25 new cases per 100,000 people (which would equal 15 cases for Garfield County) over a two-week period.

This was the main sticking point when the district announced on Tuesday that in-person learning would be delayed to at least Oct. 5. At that time the incidence rate was 68.3.

The other of the nine metrics that was not met was having air quality measures in place.

Roaring Fork Schools COO Jeff Gatlin said there was a shipping delay on air filters but that they should be installed soon and would not create a stumbling block to opening for instruction.

Stein said that kindergartners through third-graders would go back to school first for three reasons.

“Those are the ones that are hardest to teach in a distance learning environment, they’re the kids whose developmental needs are the most pressing,” and they’re the group least susceptible to infection and least likely to transmit the virus, Stein said.

Stein concluded his presentation with four options: adhere to protective measures to lower infection rates; choose other metrics to determine opening; rush the timeline; and revisit the guiding principles the board established in May.

Public comment

All 23 speakers during public comment, which took a little over an hour, were in favor of getting students back in school.

Rachel Hahn was “shocked” that mental health was not mentioned as a deciding factor. She said the district is protecting adults at the sake of the mental health of children.

Amy Kaufman, a teacher at Basalt Middle School, said that considering their unique needs and lower COVID risk the younger students could have a different decision-making pathway than the older kids.

Anika Neal from Glenwood, a kindergarten teacher at Sopris Elementary School, asked why all other local districts are back to in-person learning but not Roaring Fork. As a teacher, she said she’s trained to do what’s in children’s best interest, and distance learning is a disservice to students.

Mary Moon, who has children at Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School, said no solutions have been offered for the technology problems she’s been facing, and her children are getting an inadequate education.

Valley View physician Chris George, a Crystal River Elementary School parent, said the data does not support distance learning, especially when seven of the nine metrics have been met.

Betsy After, with a Crystal River Elementary School kindergartner, said the board is in charge and staff should report to the board.

Brion After, Betsy’s husband, said that distance learning is expanding the racial divide in the community. He also said that opening his business, Independence Run and Hike, during a pandemic was difficult at first, but he learned how to make it work, suggesting the same principle would work at the schools.

Roaring Fork High School student Annabelle Stableford said she can see how the ineffectiveness of distance learning will affect her future.

Board discussion

At the beginning of nearly two hours of discussion board member Natalie Torres said that despite the speakers’ united front, there are families that don’t want to return to in-person learning.

Board member Jennifer Scherer said that there are families of 5,000 students in the district, leaving a lot of opinions unknown.

In regard to the board being in charge, Scherer said, “We aren’t the experts; we hire the experts, and trust them to give us expert advice.”

Board chair Jen Rupert summed up the troubles the board faces in this situation by saying how conflicted she is.

“Every thought has an opposing thought,” she said.

Factors to consider

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to move to in-person learning.

First is that everyone wishes things were like they used to be.

“We all want to get kids back in school,” Stein said.

But there is obviously a coronavirus infection risk to students, staff and families when schools reopen.

If teachers are uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning, there will be staffing shortages.

“Without staff we can’t get back to school,” said Amy Littlejohn, director of Human Resources for Roaring Fork Schools.

Waiting for conditions to improve might be a wise choice because opening schools and then being forced to return to distance learning could be very stressful for everyone involved.

“If there’s a radical spike then we could be required to pivot immediately back to distance learning,” Stein said.

On the other hand, the development of young children is impeded without in-person instruction, and distance learning is difficult for many families.

The adverse effects on mental health of children and families involved with at-home learning cannot be overlooked, as several people noted during public comment.

The district’s efforts to get computer equipment to those who need it is taking longer than hoped, Gatlin said, and internet problems are causing problems with distance learning, a problem that board member Jasmin Ramirez was experiencing that same day.

Back to school

With all this in mind, the board opted for the “rush the timeline” option, charging Stein and his team to develop a plan to get kindergartners through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28. Stein preferred that date to the original tentative date to reopen of Sept. 21 as it would give two and a half weeks to prepare.

The board will meet next week — between its regularly scheduled meetings — to look at the reopening plan.

“I’m confident they’ll bring back a workable plan,” Rupert said in a followup interview.

No direction was given by the board regarding returning the higher grades to school.

“The board was not ready last night to move any further on middle school or high school yet,” Rupert said.

That discussion will take place at the next regular meeting on Sept. 23, she said.

It is possible that if COVID numbers spike between now and Sept. 28, the reopening effort will be scuttled.

“This is an arena that is changing so fast that all of us — board members, exec team, staff, community, parents, kids — are going to have to be open to the understanding that everything is changeable,” Rupert said.

cwertheim@postindependent.com

Despite a ‘blizzard,’ all goes well for Aspen Elementary on Tuesday as kids return to classroom

Tuesday marked the first day back in a physical classroom for Aspen Elementary School students since March, before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a halt. And, in true mountain town fashion, that day brought with it a freak September snowstorm as the kids were trying to return home.

“I am frozen solid. We just had a carpool line for pick up and it was a full on blizzard, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while,” AES Principal Chris Basten said late Tuesday afternoon. “It was the perfect apocalyptic ending, but to what was otherwise a pretty awesome day.”

Students began arriving on the Aspen School District campus around 8 a.m. Tuesday for their first in-person classes since March 11. A major worry for Basten was dealing with the morning traffic as kids were being dropped off, but all went as well as possible in getting students to their respective cohorts without much overlap. A “flex start” was in place, meaning a vague 9 a.m. start for classes to allow as much time as possible for morning transport.

AES students are divided into two cohorts this fall, one attending classes Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other Thursdays and Fridays. Basten didn’t have an official head count Tuesday, but said there should have been a little more than 200 students on campus, roughly half of the AES enrollment for this school year.

“It could not have gone more smoothly in the morning. It was really great,” Basten said. “Teachers are in their element when they are teaching kids. Even though there was certainly a fair amount of anxiety and concern leading up to what today would look like, it seemed like once the kids arrived everything just kind of flowed automatically.”

While there may have been more than 200 students on campus Tuesday, they were divided into those cohorts of about 10 students each and kept separate. This even includes lunchtime, as the cafeteria remains closed. The cohorts not attending in-person classes Tuesday were able to take part virtually.

Without middle and high school students on campus yet, the AES students were able to utilize the entire block, with third graders using the middle school and fourth graders using the high school. Many teachers took their classes outside when the weather allowed.

“The story of the day from my lens was just seeing our amazing teachers connecting with their students for the first time since March for in-person learning,” Basten said. “I visited many of the classrooms and just found there to be a lot of excitement in the air and positivity. The kids were so glad to be back at school.”

There won’t be any in-person learning Wednesdays, a day dedicated to online-only specials like music and art, as well as a day for teachers to plan and for the schools to be deep cleaned between cohorts. Beginning Thursday, the second group of cohorts will come to campus for their first in-person classes, essentially Day 1, Take 2 for the teachers and staff.

“It’s a different group and they are going to provide their own energy and excitement and I’m looking forward to seeing all their smiling faces and all their parents, as well,” Basten said. “I was really, really happy with how the day had gone. The carpool line at the end of the day was a real challenge with the blizzard. It was just terrible conditions, but we got everybody safely where they needed to be.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Aspen Elementary School students return to classroom under new cohort system

When schools closed in March as the coronavirus pandemic was taking root, students, teachers and parents were sent scrambling to figure out the next steps. A system for online learning was eventually established, but it put a lot of burden on the parents and wasn’t exactly ideal for the younger elementary school students.

That’s why Aspen Elementary School Principal Chris Basten thought it was so important to turn over every stone to find a way to get the young kids back in a physical classroom this fall.

“They were trying to keep their jobs and were thrust into this thing called teaching,” Basten said last week of the parents. “There is a reason we have all these professionals on campus who do it for a living. So we kind of knew if we could get elementary kids back on campus, that would be great for the kids and great for the parents.”

Despite all the hurdles, the Aspen School District found a plan that, at least on paper, should work. Starting Tuesday, the AES students begin the 2020-21 school year with roughly half of them set to return to the ASD campus for the first time since March 11. The other half will make their debut Thursday as part of the school’s cohort system.

“We’ve really been working on trying to create the most healthy situation that we can, because when we open we want to make sure we are able to stay open,” said Kay Erickson, a kindergarten teacher who also serves as the Aspen Education Association president. “We don’t want to put all this work and effort into this and have to close.”

Normally, a teacher would have between 15 and 20 kids in a classroom. For the time being, those students are now divided into two cohorts of about 10 each. Cohort “A” will attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while cohort “B” will be in the classroom on Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesday is strictly online, with an emphasis on specials like art and music, as well as a day to deep clean the buildings between cohorts. Even though students will only have two days in a physical classroom, they will still “attend” class five days a week and will be able to connect with their other cohort virtually.

And since the middle and high school students aren’t yet returning to in-person learning at this time — a return date for the older kids hadn’t been established as of Monday night — the AES students are going to take advantage of the extra space by spreading the more than 450 students across the ASD campus. Basten said they are going to utilize six classrooms in the middle school and five more in the high school.

Should the older students return to campus in the coming weeks or months, Basten said that would likely mean all AES students would then return to their own building in some fashion.

“Those 10 kids you have on Monday and Tuesday, they stay together. They don’t intermingle with other groups of kids, for anything,” Basten said. “The idea is, should we have an infection, it would be limited to that cohort. So rather than shutting the school down, it would be that cohort that would have to go and learn remotely. We are hoping that doesn’t happen, but we are prepared for anything.”

Even if the school does have to shut down because of an outbreak, Basten and the teachers felt it was important for them to establish a relationship with the kids before then. With students getting new teachers this year, that relationship isn’t yet there and that can make online learning even more difficult. Those established relationships helped tremendously in the spring when the district took everything online.

As far as the desire to get kids back into the classroom, the numbers say it’s high from parents. Basten said at one point over the summer about 10% of the families had an interest in going online-only this fall — which remains an option for any student — but as of last week only 13 families total wanted to go that route.

The return to campus began last week when AES hosted a weeklong orientation. Each student had a day and a time they could come by and meet with teachers and find their classrooms. For teachers and students alike, it was a joyful experience and a significant, albeit cautious and tentative, step toward a return to normality.

“There was no closure, and I feel like there still hasn’t been any closure,” second-grade teacher Jennifer Liddington said of the way the school year ended in the spring. “It gives you energy to see all the kids coming back. Not one of them is like, ‘No, I don’t want to come to school.’ They are, ‘Yes, we want to come back to school.’ They are just excited to come back and it gives you energy to see them happy and ready to be here.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Bond campaign for $94M will be Aspen School District’s third in 15 years

Leaders at the Aspen School District are banking on a $94 million bond proposal that will focus on building new teacher housing and making other capital improvements.

It will be the third bond question brought to school district voters in 15 years. Voters passed a $33 million bond proposal for facility upgrades in November 2005, and another $12 million bond question in 2008 created to address staff housing needs.

This November’s question — unanimously adopted by the school board’s five members at a special meeting last week — asks voters to approve more than $94 million with a maximum repayment of $161.9 million. The district is bringing the question ahead of 2021’s scheduled retirement of the current bonds.

As well, voters in the Aspen and Snowmass Village municipalities will be asked to extend their respective sales and property taxes supporting the district.

Voters living with the school district can expect to see campaign literature in their mailboxes leading up to the election.

“Election Day is just not on Election Day,” consultant Paul Hanley told the board on Friday. “Election Day starts on Oct. 14 when the ballots are sent out. Between Oct. 14 and Election Day, every day is Election Day.”

Calling it the campaign a “45-day foot race” to mid-October when ballots go out, board member Dwayne Romero said the work now “transitions into a citizen-led campaign” to push the passage of the questions.

Results of a survey mailed to households in August showed “a limited awareness of the funding proposal being considered, with 32% of respondents having read, seen or heard a lot or some about the District’s bond proposal,” according to a summary of the survey presented to the school board. “This is important because the survey indicates that support for the proposal increases with awareness.”

The district received a 6.5% response rate with the surveys — seeing a return of 437 of the 6,720 questionnaires sent to households with at least one registered voter.

Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said they have children in the school district, and another 63% said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote in favor of the bond question. Another 76% of the respondents living in Aspen said they would support reauthorizing the sales tax, and 66% said they were behind the Snowmass property tax renewal.

The district has 50 housing units for its employees, and teacher pay continues to be a concern. However, bonds cannot support an increase in compensation, but they can be used to build housing. The 2005 bond question for teacher housing has not panned out, the district conceded in its August mail-out.

“The District works hard to proactively maintain its school buildings and other facilities,” said an ASD-produced “Just the Facts” brochure that accompanied a survey. “However, there are capital investments that were not addressed by the 2005 voter-approved bond measure that now need to be addressed.”

The Nov. 3 ballot question, Issue 4A, puts the teachers up near the top, saying bonds would be used for “attracting and retaining quality teachers and staff by acquiring and constructing affordable housing; replacing outdated plumbing, HVAC systems and roofing to extend the useful life of existing facilities; addressing health, safety and security upgrades districtwide; updating instructional technology; improving classrooms, science labs, libraries and performing arts spaces; creating flexible and adaptive learning environments, including outdoor learning spaces; constructing a new preschool and mixed-use facility; and addressing energy efficiency upgrades districtwide.”

The proposed improvements are part of the district’s facilities master plan it embarked on in 2019.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Colorado spending $2M in relief funding to provide internet access to students

DENVER — Colorado will spend $2 million in federal pandemic relief funding to provide internet access to students who lack service as part of an overall effort to close the digital divide in both rural and urban parts of the state as the pandemic has forced many to rely on online learning.

State education commissioner Kathy Anthes announced the plan on Wednesday, joined by Gov. Jared Polis and Attorney General Phil Weiser. School districts will be able to apply for grants to pay for hotspots to provide internet access to households as well as things like mobile hotspot trucks that may work better in rural areas, she said.

“Broadband access is now an essential school supply. It’s a non negotiable,” she said at the Fort Logan Northgate School in the Sheridan School District 2 in Denver.

Weiser also announced that T-Mobile would provide up to 34,000 low-income student households in Colorado with a free WiFi hotspot and 100GB of free data for a year as well as discounted devices like tablets and computers. It’s part of a national effort the wireless company announced in November and the commitment to help those households fulfills part of a settlement agreement Weiser’s office reached with it last fall regarding its $26.5 billion purchase of Sprint.

Weiser also announced he has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday asking that it use funding for improving school internet access to pay for extending schools’ broadband networks to students’ homes and for WiFi hotspots or other online access for students.

More than 65,000 students in Colorado lack internet access, according to the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative.

CMC enrollment flat as fall session begins with COVID-19 precautions

A new academic semester has begun for Colorado Mountain College sites across the seven-county special college district, but with fewer students in actual classrooms due to COVID-19 concerns and generally flat enrollment compared with last fall.

“We’re definitely seeing a fall like we’ve never really seen, as far as enrollment patterns,” said Shane Larson, vice president for CMC student affairs.

So far, with some course enrollments still trickling in, “We are looking pretty flat compared to a year ago,” Larson said.

A year ago was, of course, before the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools across the country, including colleges, to suspend in-person classes and conclude the year with online distance learning.

CMC continued with the online format for its summer session, and announced in June that it would offer a flexible mix of both video classes and face-to-face components, such as small group projects and discussions.

Certain courses that cannot be done remotely are still being offered in person at designated times, but with strict adherence to public health guidelines to prevent spread of COVID-19, such as mandatory mask-wearing and physical distancing.

“These courses may have parts of the course online, or using videoconferencing technology like Webex or Zoom, but will require a student to be physically present for all or portions of the course,” according to CMC’s “Fall 2020 Trail Map.”

Students taking courses that do not require in-person attendance, a set class time or group projects are following a syllabus to complete their coursework online within the semester time frame.

Because open registration for the fall semester was pushed back until mid-June, instead of the usual May opening, enrollment numbers were just being finalized before the semester began Aug. 24, Larson said.

“A big part of our enrollment is the concurrent high school students who are taking college courses,” he said. “Since they have been in turmoil, it has delayed a lot of those registrations, as well.”

Because residence halls at Spring Valley outside Glenwood Springs, and in Steamboat Springs and Leadville, have limited capacity due to the COVID restrictions, there are fewer students on campus than usual.

Residence halls have more single rooms and a limited number of double rooms. For the 2020-21 academic year, the college also has waived the requirement that new students live on campus.

Larson said CMC was shooting to have its residence halls at about 60% to 70% capacity, within those restrictions.

Spring Valley came in closer to 50%, and Leadville and Steamboat are both at about 60% capacity.

“We tried to hold a lot of those rooms for students who are in more of an in-person format,” Larson said. That would include students in the vet-tech, nursing and the Isaacson School of New Media programs, where lab work is essential, he said.

Students living off campus are still allowed on campuses for technology needs to complete coursework, virtual tutoring, advising and communications with instructors.

Based on preliminary numbers, compared with the same period before the start of fall semester 2019, college-wide full-time equivalency has increased approximately 1% for credit classes.

“Enrollment in other classes — including English as a second language and high school equivalency — appears similar to the same time last year,” according to a news release that went out last week.

The college had anticipated that its non-credit, community education courses would have low enrollment, since fewer of those courses were scheduled due to their face-to-face nature.

“That was an impact of precautionary measures taken regarding COVID-19,” according to the release. “All enrollment data is expected to change over the coming weeks, however, in part because registration for concurrent enrollment courses is delayed in many CMC district high schools this year.”

Larson added that until high school students can connect with their school counselors, it will be hard to know how concurrent enrollment will be impacted.

The college also stepped up its marketing for this year’s high school graduates who had planned to go to a four-year university but deferred for a year, and even those who had already been at another institution, to offer CMC as an option, Larson said.

“It’s hard to track student intentions and goals when they enroll, so we don’t have any data tracking that,” he said.

CMC did, however, expand its full-ride Presidents Scholarship program to include not only this year’s graduates, but any student who graduated high school in the past four years.

“We do have our biggest class of presidents scholars coming in,” Larson said.

The summer semester, during which CMC offered free tuition for certain groups of students impacted by the COVID-19 shutdowns, including continuing education students, did see greater enrollment numbers.

“Over 60% of the students who attended were continuing students (from the spring semester),” Larson said. “We were really happy to see so many of our active students take advantage of the free summer.”

In-district summer students earned 68% more credits compared with summer 2019. Overall, including non-local students, credits earned were up 61%, he said, from 9,028 credits earned in summer 2019 to 14,508 for the just-completed summer session.

After pushback, Aspen School District offering students full complement of art, music classes

To Erica Nottingham, a choir teacher in the Aspen School District, it made sense why some of the arts were left off the original plan for this school year. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to dictate lives, schools were trying to find ways to educate students, and that maybe meant leaving something behind.

“It’s understandable why those things would maybe be first to go, because they are the most difficult to administer,” Nottingham said. “They are the most difficult to actually do; you can’t translate a choral experience to the computer screen. So we had to be very vocal in our advocacy for these programs, especially with the focus on social and emotional learning.”

At an Aug. 17 Aspen Board of Education meeting, plans for the school year were announced that left elementary school classes such as art, music, theater and physical education on the outside looking in. This came despite a plan to return students up through fourth grade to the physical classroom on a limited basis.

But, after pushback from parents and faculty alike, the ASD did an about-face and through a teacher-led group found a way to make the “specials” fit the fall schedule.

“I am the biggest fan of P.E. and the arts. We didn’t know in the early stages how we could safely staff and provide that,” said Aspen Elementary School Principal Chris Basten. “For instance, our gym teacher, on a normal day, probably sees well over 100 kids. And the same can be said for our music teacher and the same can be said for our art teachers, as well as can be said for our world language teachers.”

The answer came via a form of block scheduling paired with the school’s cohort system and online learning. Beginning Sept. 8, the elementary school students will return to a physical classroom twice a week as part of either the Monday-Tuesday group or the Thursday-Friday group. Wednesday is a day for teacher planning and to clean the school between cohorts.

Those groups, which are no more than 10 students each, will spend two weeks attending the same specials class, such as physical education, before moving onto a different specials class after that time. Classes like art and music will be online-only via live group lessons Wednesdays.

This should limit the amount of students those teachers deal with on a weekly basis to about 60.

“It’s still a lot, but it’s definitely better than 500,” said Marnie White, a music teacher at Aspen Elementary School who also serves as the secretary for the Aspen Education Association. “That is to reduce exposure for teachers. We normally see all 500 students every three days, and obviously that exposure rate is not something that is acceptable in this environment.”

The high school and middle school students have started the school year online with no date set on a possible return to the physical classroom. Unlike the elementary school, which had its art classes originally nixed, that was never in the plan for the older students. While the classes will look different, the full offering of arts and music classes are on the schedule, outside of beginner instrumentals with the fifth-graders.

“Right now I’m working on plans to try and see as the year progresses, if we continue to stay online, how we can reincorporate beginning band students virtually,” said Andy Farmer, the band director for both the middle and high schools. “It’s been an easy transition with those older kids because they already got experience playing their instruments and they already got experience in the spring with how we are structuring our online teaching.”

Whether its through live online classes or being in the physical classroom, all the teachers agreed having art and music as part of the curriculum is important for the overall education and well-being of the students.

“I don’t think their education would be complete without some course work in the arts,” Nottingham said. “You kind of become a family. You become like a sports team when you work together for a common performance goal. So we are really excited to have all the courses back on the schedule, and the kids are as well.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com