Back to school, COVID-19 style
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s been a back-to-school unlike any in history.
For one, students haven’t been in the classroom since March.
And, as they entered buildings across the county’s three districts, they crossed into an entirely altered universe consisting of masks, staggered schedules and a heightened anxiety among parents and school staff.
It was different as soon as they got on the bus — with things in place like assigned seating and added bus routes to keep the kids spaced out.
Lunches were eaten in smaller group — some in the classroom or on bleachers in the gymnasium and many outside.
But in Steamboat Springs, South Routt and Hayden, things went relatively well — even better than expected, according to the district superintendents.
Because of the significant differences in size, Hayden and South Routt have all students in the classroom every day, while Steamboat students rotate every other day between in-person and remote learning.
“It has been awesome,” said Hayden School District Superintendent Christy Sinner of week one. “The students are so happy to be back. It went very smoothly, and the teachers have been stellar.”
The students clearly missed seeing each other, she said. And while the focus of school is on academic learning, “it’s also about relationships, working with people, collaboration and problem-solving. Some of that you can do online — but it’s not the same as peer to peer and staff interaction,” she added.
In South Routt, where students have completed two weeks, “it went really well,” said Superintendent Rim Watson. “However, even with intense planning, there were still many things to think through and adjust once full in-person schooling began.”
In Steamboat, “it’s been an excellent start,” said Superintendent Brad Meeks. “I’m really pleased with how things have gone this first week.”
Meeks also said it has been evident how much students missed seeing their friends and teachers.
“Kids are very excited to come back and have normalcy in their lives, and appreciate and value education,” said, Jay Hamric, Steamboat director of teaching and learning.
Concerns and anxiety
After teachers expressed some concerns — primarily about the high school — at the August 17 Steamboat Springs School Board meeting, additional discussions were held, Meeks said, in an effort to keep the students in smaller groups for orientation. The normal every day cohorts are still essentially quite large — consisting of half the student body, as it is logistically difficult for high school students to take different classes from different teachers without mixing with their peers.
But the smaller groups for orientation “really addressed some student concerns and anxieties about returning to school, and let them process that in a comfortable and safe setting,” said Hamric.
Sinner said there has been a lot of apprehension and anxiety among teachers, though they haven’t had any COVID-related resignations. The district delayed opening for a week for additional training.
“The teachers definitely appreciated that extra preparation time,” said Hayden Elementary Principal Steve McDonald.
“And once the kids got here,” Sinner said, “and we got in a groove and they saw the smiling faces — a lot of anxiety has been removed.”
In South Routt, Watson said feedback from staff has been overwhelming positive and even full of surprise at how well things have gone. Watson attributes this to the extensive planning that happened before doors opened.
“I really appreciate the ‘let’s figure this out’ attitude I have encountered. If we needed to make an unforeseen adjustment, it was accepted and implemented,” he said.
In Hayden, Sinner said mask-wearing enforcement hasn’t been bad, other than reminders to keep it on the nose.
“They are following through because they want to stay in school — and they know if we don’t, we can’t be there,” Sinner said.
In South Routt, “mask wearing has been a lot less of an issue for students than I anticipated,” Watson said. “In fact, the younger the students — the less of an issue it has proved to be.”
Students are even keeping them on when they have an opportunity for an outdoor break, he noted.
“Mask wearing has also proven to be more of an issue for some the district than anticipated. We are continuing to broadcast that universal, fully implemented facial coverings are the path by which we get to implement in-person instruction — which we all agree is the best thing for our students,” he said.
Across the board at Steamboat schools, Meeks said the students have done well with mask-wearing and social distancing.
“Students have really stepped up and done their part,” he added.
Meeks noted many of the older students have spent time wearing masks at their summer jobs. Hamric said they are incorporating some science lessons on how disease spreads and the scientific evidence behind social distancing and mask wearing, thus helping students better understand why things are the way they are.
Hayden has about 13 elementary and 16 secondary students that elected for 100% remote learning through the district, though they are still in a trial period. The school lost about 18 students, Sinner said, but also gained some from other districts.
Watson said he’s gotten primarily positive feedback from his 12 families and 20 students who elected the remote learning plan, with some trouble-shooting. And they’ve had families change their mind and choose in-person learning. Internet connectivity has remained one of the bigger challenges in parts of the district, and especially for families with multiple children trying to access synchronous lessons at the same time and the quality of the audio and video, Watson said.
“Our staff is really stepping up to problem solve and get all of our students into rigorous instruction,” he added.
In Steamboat, all students are spending half of every week learning from home. About 300 students chose the 100% remote learning option through the district, Meeks said. They are still in the 10-day trial period.
Because the online programs have been overwhelmed by the massive increase in volume across the state and country, “it has been a little bit of a rough start,” Hamric said. There has been a delay for elementary remote learners, he said, who started on Friday.
The remote option looks much different than what happened in the spring, he emphasized. And it works great for some students and doesn’t for others.
The district estimated losing about 5% of students, but at this time, is under that, Meeks said. However, the official numbers will come after the October 1 count.
All three districts have increased opportunities for outdoor learning opportunities, including for extracurriculars, maskless breaks and lunch.
The schools in Hayden partnered with the town to purchase more shade canopies to increase their outdoor learning space.
“It does take a village to get this off the ground,” said McDonald. “The partnership with the town has been fantastic.”
All P.E. classes are held outside, Sinner described, and the kindergarten class spends the first half hour of their day outside.
Beginning this week, Hayden is on a 27 school-day countdown to the move-in to their brand new school, Sinner said. The staff has toured the building, and they are hoping at some point to hold an open house for the community.
For all districts, adjustments will continue to be made as things go forward. And the need for flexibility is paramount.
Sinner she is meeting every other week with staff to check in on what is working well and what needs to change. She said she wants to maintain that open and positive line of communication and input.
“I can’t give enough credit to everyone, including parents,” McDonald said.
And when or if there is a case of COVID-19, “for the teachers and students — we need to come from a place of love and support and be as flexible possible. It does no good to come from a place of fear,” he said.
If there is a need to shift to full remote learning for some or all students, Hamric said, they already have the blended learning model using the digital content as part of their curriculum, so won’t be as big of an adjustment.
In terms of watching disease prevalence in the community and anticipating any change in learning model, Meeks said they are taking it one day at a time.
“Even with the numbers looking good we are staying vigilant,” he said. “And not letting up.”
And if something does require any or all students to go into quarantine, Meeks said they have plans in place to act as quickly as possible to ensure kids and families are notified immediately to stay home.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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The Steamboat Springs Board of Education and the Steamboat Springs Education Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement Monday night, giving licensed teachers an average pay bump of 5.5% for next year.