How Routt County schools have learned and adapted during the pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When asked to grade the Hayden School District on how well it has done handling the pandemic, Superintendent Christy Sinner said she based her evaluation on growth.
“I would say when we started, we were probably a B, not everybody had bought in,” Sinner said. “But as time has gone on, everybody has bought in, we’re doing everything possible we can, and everybody is on board. So I would definitely say our growth has moved us up to an A.”
Just like a school, Sinner said it is about learning and adapting, which is an everyday struggle.
The response to the pandemic in schools evolved throughout the fall, with each district in Routt County needing to send students home at some point because students had tested positive for COVID-19. But districts have learned how to deal with these situations over time, sharpening their response and communication with parents and the public.
But administrators also point to protocols they put in place before school started that have proved to be effective measures to curb the virus.
“I think that work upfront helped ease fears and concerns and worry in the beginning,” said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks.
Meeks said the pandemic emphasized how important education is to the community. He gives the community a lot of credit for helping schools provide the best possible learning environment during a pandemic.
“When faced with adversity, it can make people stronger and help us be more determined and work together,” Meeks said. “I think I have learned that, and I have seen it.“
South Routt School District has been in-person for all of the fall except for the last week before winter break. Rim Watson, superintendent of the district, credits his teachers for their commitment to in-person learning even when it could expose them to more risk.
Communication has been really important for districts, and Watson said over time, it has become more intense. The pace of calls he gets from parents is actually slower than he anticipated, potentially a sign that the district is communicating effectively.
“Anything that I send out, I know parents are waiting for it because they are very locked on to all decisions that the district is making,” Watson said. “It has become more important for the parents side to make sure that they are informed about what we are implementing and what we are doing to make sure that in-person instruction can happen.”
Both South Routt and Hayden are requiring teachers to wear KN-95 masks and safety glasses while in class, which is more personal protective equipment than they wore in September.
“As time has gone on, we now require them to wear the KN-95 masks, which the governor provides for us, as well as safety glasses,” Sinner said. “If our teachers are teaching with students, that is what they have to wear. It is not an option for them.”
Having a stockpile of personal protective equipment, which has become so crucial during the pandemic, seems to Meeks something district leaders need to discuss moving forward.
Quarantining procedures when a case happens in the schools has evolved, allowing schools to better target who needs to quarantine and hopefully limit the number of teachers sidelined, Meeks said.
Sinner said the unknown can be difficult for students and staff, because one call could change everything in an instant.
“The anxiety of day to day, not knowing that today we’re in school, but we could get a call at one o’clock and that would be it,” Sinner said.
In Steamboat, one thing that has changed significantly through the fall was how the district responded to a case in a school.
Meeks said at first, public health officials would contact them about a case and district staff would work together to decide who needed to quarantine. They also would call all the parents in an affected cohort.
But now, Meeks said some of the areas where county public health would take the lead before are now being handled by the district. Principals are often aware who is going to be tested and sometimes learn of the positive result before health officials.
District staff work to identify who needs to be quarantined based on the various protocols and then run things by public health officials.
“We’re primarily doing a lot of the leg work at this point and then we’re calling public health just to confirm,” Meeks said. “It takes a lot of resources, human resources, to make it happen.”
Each of the superintendents said public health officials have been quick to respond and their guidance has been crucial to ensure district leaders were making good decisions.
“The big thing for me has been how valuable CDC, CDPHE and the Board of County Commissioners has been at pumping information to us,” Watson said. “Just valuable information we needed to know about how decisions were being made and why.”
Meeks did not want to grade his district on its pandemic response because there is so little to compare the moment to. He does think the district has communicated effectively.
“In any type of a crisis, the more informed we can keep the community the better,” Meeks said. “I think that helps people understand what is going on and why and what we are doing to keep people safe.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.