1st quarantines at North Routt Charter School are a sign of how prevalent COVID-19 is locally | SteamboatToday.com

1st quarantines at North Routt Charter School are a sign of how prevalent COVID-19 is locally

Since starting school last fall, the North Routt Community Charter School had managed to avoid quarantining any students because of exposure while in school until a “perfect storm” of events Wednesday ended that streak.

Seventh graders at North Routt Community Charter School study ’80s music in a yurt that has served as their classroom this year as the school found creative ways to keep students in school full time. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

CLARK — It was about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, and Brandon LaChance got the call he had been dreading since the start of the pandemic.

LaChance, the executive director at North Routt Community Charter School, learned a “perfect storm” of events was going to force him to shift the school to online learning, putting the first blemish on what had been a perfect record.

“I actually got two phone calls yesterday afternoon within a 30-minute time period that just explained some positive tests within households,” LaChance said.

LaChance then worked with Routt County Public Health to figure out which students needed to quarantine. With that number rising to about 60% of the school’s population, staffing and other issues made going remote the best option.

“Every single illness that is happening within a household, it becomes a delicate situation from the school side of it,” LaChance said. “Ultimately, it just became obvious that we had a quick little perfect storm, and we needed to quickly react.”

Within an hour students had been sent home, and the imaginary “days since last COVID-19 quarantine” sign for the school returned to zero, the same number that just Monday LaChance used to describe the number of quarantines the school had since the start of the school year.

The charter school’s first quarantines are another sign of just how prevalent the virus is in Routt County right now, as cases hit all-time highs even though they are trending down in Colorado as a whole.

Students play outside for recess at North Routt Community Charter School.The yurt, normally reserved for physical education classes, has housed seventh graders this year as the school used any available space to allow for in-person learning. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Around 6:15 a.m. Monday, LaChance got a call from a parent seeking advice about what to do with her kids while getting a COVID-19 test for her husband, who was showing symptoms.

“Dad went in (Monday) morning, got a rapid test and is positive,” LaChance said. “That right there, a conversation at 6 o’clock in the morning, averted those kids sitting here and then getting the COVID result at 10:30 a.m. and pulling those kids out at 10:30.”

Early morning calls like these have become routine for LaChance, and he points to the open communication with parents as why they had been able to avoid any quarantines before Wednesday. The school had been in person full time at all grade levels since the start of the school year, and students will return to that format Feb. 8 after just over a week out of the classroom.

When students return, the school will put back in place the many measures they have taken all school year to prevent a day like Wednesday — and that success has not come easy.

Typically, students at the kindergarten through eighth-grade school are grouped together, so the nine different grades make up five different classes. This year, students were separated into nine different classes, reducing the size of each class to about 13 students.

LaChance said being a small school is what allowed them to have students in school every day. He noted their cohort sizes are roughly the same as those in the Steamboat Springs School District, but North Routt can do it every day.

“We’re lucky that we are able to do this because, at a place like Steamboat, you can’t just double up your cohorts overnight,” LaChance said.

Lacking enough classrooms for that many classes, LaChance got creative. The lunchroom has been converted into another classroom by putting up barriers separating it from the hallway. A yurt, normally used for physical education classes, has been converted into a full-time classroom, complete with wood pellet stove to keep it warm.

The lunchroom at North Routt Community Charter School has been mostly blocked off so it can serve as a classroom. Students were split up by grade at the school so there would be smaller cohorts of students, but this required them to get creative to find enough space. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

“Our whole intention is to keep all the cohorts separate, even from a bathroom standpoint,” LaChance said. “People have different jobs this year; our whole focus is getting kids back five days a week.”

The hallways near the restrooms are speckled with colored dots marking 6-foot intervals for students to line up to maintain social distancing. Students use a button and light system to communicate with other classes about when they are going to the bathroom to avoid contact between cohorts.

Teachers have a checklist that starts with them checking their own temperature. When students arrive, teachers check their temperatures and make them wash their hands.

LaChance said some of the school’s magic is handcuffed when students are separated because they learn so much from each other.

“Our eighth-graders don’t come here from a social climate of middle school, they come here in a social climate that ‘I am the big kid in the school, and I have to act accordingly,’” LaChance said. “It brings that family approach, that community approach to our school.”

Like every other school in the county, staffing is key to keeping students in school full time. LaChance and Libby Meyring, the school’s principal, often need to step in for a teacher who is staying home because they don’t feel well.

LaChance encourages parents to reach out directly to him if they have any questions. When navigating the school’s website, a message pops up on the home page instructing parents to fill out an online form for any illness, COVID-19 or not, and provides LaChance’s cellphone number with instructions to call at any time.

“It is literally a 24/7 way of staying on top of every single illness, every single sniffle is right in front of me,” LaChance said.

He said the buy-in from the parents is because they look at the school differently, almost as an extension of themselves. Rather than seeing the school as a faceless institution, they see it as a true pillar of an unincorporated town.

“Parents don’t treat this place like we are the big brother,” LaChance said. “They treat this place like a community school.”

He estimates students will lose about 5 1/2 days in the classroom because of the quarantine, but the school was ready, having several plans in place in case a day like Wednesday happened.

“The bus will be running on the eighth, and we’re ready to get back at it,” LaChance said.

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