Getting students back in the classroom is No. 1 goal across Routt County |

Getting students back in the classroom is No. 1 goal across Routt County

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The goal is to have all kids back in school, in person, every day, said Rim Watson and Christy Sinner, superintendents of South Routt and Hayden school districts, respectively.

Watson described the mitigation measures he is preparing for: ordering a $1,200 disinfecting sprayer machine for each of the district’s four buildings, as well as a portable one for the buses.

He’s ordering face shields, cloth and disposable facemasks, and cleaning supplies — all funded through the CARES Act money.

“We are getting everything in place if we get the ability to be in school,” Watson said. “We want to be ready for any mitigation plan they put in front of us.”

By the vast majority, the parents want the kids back in the classroom, the kids want to be back in the classroom, and staff wants to be back in the classroom, Watson and Sinner both said, based in part on districtwide surveys.

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Sinner is also preparing for whatever the guidelines and regulations dictate when school resumes in late August, though she said based on some fervent parent feedback, “They don’t want a requirement making their kids wear masks. I heard that loud and clear.”

She also emphasized the desire from parents for athletics to resume.

While mask guidelines differ for the youngest students, “we strongly believe masks will be part of the plan,” Watson said.

Steamboat Springs is also setting the ideal as in-person learning; however, with a larger student population and on average larger class sizes, the district is also leaning more toward a hybrid schedule under which older students would alternate classroom days with distant learning days and younger students would attend for a half day.

The classroom and capacity number — which will likely be set by the state — isn’t known at this time and will play a key role in designing a schedule. But Watson and Sinner say that their average class sizes are smaller to begin with, and they don’t anticipate staggered schedules and blended curriculum to be necessary.

Sinner said they are still talking through all scenarios, but “the No. 1 goal is to be in-person and face-to-face in the fall.”

At South Routt, most classes are between 10 and 17 students. In Hayden, the average class in high school is 13 students and 18 for elementary.

Both superintendents stress their keen awareness on the need to remain flexible and committed to prioritizing safety, as well as adhere to whatever the local and state guidelines are when the time comes to reopen.

But they cannot iterate enough the preference for as much in-person learning as possible.

This week, the typically cautious American Academy of Pediatrics caught many people by surprise by issuing guidelines that “strongly advocate that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The statement is prefaced by a number of key principals to be considered, including the necessity for flexibility, communication with health agencies and consideration of diverse students with differing challenges and needs.

“The students who are most teacher dependent are exactly that,” Watson said. “They need to be in the company of a teacher.”

That direct contact, he said, can make the difference between a student’s failure and success. He also stressed the importance of socialization and mental health.

And for all students, Watson added, South Routt’s mission statement is to “cause kids to exceed their potential” — which would be impeded by every student sitting at home in front of a computer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also advocated mask-wearing for students and staff when not able to maintain a 6-foot distance, physical spacing and other mitigation measures.

The academy also notes that much has been learned about the virus over the past several months, and that COVID-19 “appears to behave differently in children and adolescents than other common respiratory viruses.” With mounting evidence — though still unanswered questions — “the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.”

A parent and COVID-19 survivor, Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, helped write the guidelines.

“We experienced our own kids doing online learning,” O’Leary said in an interview with The New York Times. “There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening. Now we’re seeing studies documenting this. Kids being home led to increases in behavioral health problems. There were reports of increased rates of abuse.”

O’Leary also noted that in Colorado, there had been four outbreaks at child care centers, and most of those involved adult to adult transmission.

“The kids in the centers are not spreading COVID-19,” O’Leary said. “I’m hearing the same thing from other states, as well.”

In the event they go back to distance learning, Watson said they are “on a path to a create a more robust and valuable model for students” than what was more of a short-term fix in the spring.

That includes a lot of teacher training and accessing of additional resources.

“I thought we did a very good job,” he said. “But we need to do better.”

Sinner said she is collecting a lot of parent feedback on what worked and what didn’t in the spring in the event they have to go back to online learning.

Both Watson and Sinner said they are preparing to work with any students and staff members in a higher-risk category, as well as families that may not feel comfortable returning.

And they are working on plans, like Steamboat, to restructure schedules around transportation, recess, lunch and class transitions to avoid too many students being in the same place at the same time.

Sinner and Watson also discussed their plans to assess whether students fell behind during the spring. Watson said they always evaluate any loss in academic achievement over the summer and will do the same this fall. The four-day week, as well as the CARES Act funding, Watson noted, gives them some space and resources to help catch kids up when needed. Sinner described implementing several new tests they hadn’t used before at the beginning of the year to assess where the students are at and where they need to be.

Knowing there are factors out of their control, right now “the mindset is to definitely get back into in-person, in-classroom learning if at all possible,” Watson said.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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