How to reopen schools?: Local health official says ‘there’s no playbook”
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the debate on reopening schools rages across the country, the Steamboat Springs School Board met for the first time in person Tuesday — outside, in masks.
The issue has been a dominant global news story, and the approaches and opinions vary widely.
Many are arguing the risks of lost learning and socialization outweigh the risks of the virus. Others point to the economic need for parents to return to work. Many teachers also have expressed concern about their health risks. Some families can’t wait to get their kids back in school, while others are wary.
And as COVID-19 cases surge across the country, opening schools would most likely only exacerbate the spread.
In an interview on Monday with Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis noted that other workers with high exposure face those same risks.
The key is to keep schools “as safe as reasonably possible, given the fact that we’re in a pandemic,” Polis said in the interview. “I believe that we can’t interrupt education; we can’t sacrifice our future and our children’s future just because of the pandemic.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Steamboat school board members were joined for an hour by Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington.
“I brought a playbook — the health department has it all figured out,” Harrington said, jokingly, before saying, “There is no playbook.” Even at the state level, Harrington said everyone seems to be figuring it out as they go.
“From a public health standpoint, it’s critical to get kids back in school,” he said. “But I’m worried. It would have been ideal if we’d kept a lid on the infection over the summer.”
As the board discussed at length the different potential scenarios, scheduling and logistics in requiring all the necessary supplies for opening safely, Harrington commended them on their deliberative process.
“What we have to prepare for is: whatever scenario hits us,” said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks.
If there is a relapse and tightening of restrictions, Harrington said, schools will be a part of that discussion.
“The models suggest a wave this fall greater than what we dealt with in the spring,” Harrington said.
Jay Hamric, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said a team of about 10 to 15 stakeholders from each school has been meeting since May, and they quickly realized they have to look at all possible scenarios and be ready to quickly “pivot toward one — depending on where we are as a community, state and country.”
A major factor will be the guidelines from the state regarding schools, which Harrington said he expected to be released soon.
“A couple months ago, I was embracing local entities making their own plans,” Harrington said, based on unique risk factors. However now, he said, that is the wrong approach.
“We are connected to the rest of the states, and the states are connected to the rest of the country,” he explained.
And within the community, he continued, every entity is connected, from schools to restaurants to Casey’s Pond.
“Everyone else is dependent on what you do, and you are dependent on what everyone else does,” he told the board. “And if we all do our part, we can get through this.”
But he did add, the county is also capable of making local decisions.
“We hope the state gives us direction, but we are not afraid to step out in front if necessary,” he said.
Meeks acknowledged district officials and board members are getting a lot of questions.
“Some we can answer, and some we can’t,” Meeks said. “Each day that goes by, it is more and more likely we will be on some kind of hybrid model.”
The model the district is currently focusing on includes an “A/B” schedule for middle and high school students, with kids divided into cohorts and attending school every other day, rotating on Fridays. Those schedules include changes to reduce the number of locations students are in and the number of teachers they come in contact with.
Hamric said the hybrid model for the high school represents a huge shift, but he also noted it works well for the 200 or 300 students who take classes at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.
The plan for elementary school students at this time is for them to attend five days a week for a half-day.
For all ages, there will be a focus on core academics, with extracurricular activities worked in as much as possible. A full online learning option is also available to anyone who doesn’t want to attend classes in person.
The elementary plan generated a bit of debate. Hamric said there was strong sentiment from parents and teachers that a half-day, everyday model was best for relationships, social emotional needs and academic learning.
Board President Kelly Latterman said she had heard nothing but negative feedback from families about the half-day model. Many parents can’t work half a shift, she noted.
And if parents can’t get their kids to school for five half days, Latterman said, it doesn’t matter if that is the district’s preferred model at this time.
“I’m very, very concerned based on the number of families I’ve talked to that can’t do half a day,” Latterman said. “If kids don’t actually come, it’s a moot point.”
Board member Chresta Brinkman also expressed concerns about working parents and their ability to find child care every day for half a day.
“The best practice is to support our working families,” she said.
The board talked about the Boys & Girls Club or other entities stepping in to help with child care but noted group-size limitations would dictate how many kids could participate.
Latterman and Brinkman mentioned hearing about parents working to organize their own “learning co-ops.”
At this time, the district is estimating a 5% drop in enrollment due to the circumstances created by the pandemic, a projection Latterman labeled as too low.
Regardless of what model is used, Meeks said if kids and staff are in the building, the priority is to make it a safe environment for all.
Pascal Ginesta, director of maintenance operations and transportation, talked about what he has been doing in preparation for school reopening in the fall.
The district has ordered 6,000 reusable masks, he said, enough to give each student and staff member two. They’ve also ordered 35,000 disposable masks, massive amounts of hand sanitizer and freestanding stations, plexiglass barriers and 11 disinfecting machines that can quickly sanitize a classroom at the end of the day.
Filtration capability in the HVAC systems have been increased, and there are plans to change filters twice as often as normal. Harrington advised bringing outside air in to dilute the air. Ginesta expressed reservations about opening doors and windows because of safety concerns and the balancing of the HVAC system and because some buildings had windows that didn’t open.
One of the most challenging potential requirements, Ginesta noted, will be sanitizing the playground after every use.
On masks, the board discussed whether the rule would be for everyone to wear one at all times inside the building or if there would be caveats, and if there were caveats, how complicated that would be to enforce.
Asked if it was good policy to simply require masks at all times inside, Harrington said, “Yes, absolutely.” It’s all about mitigating risk, he emphasized. And outdoors is much safer, Harrington noted. The known transmissions as a result of local contact tracing are occurring almost entirely indoors, he said.
With all mitigation efforts in place, Harrington said his estimate is a risk reduction of 75%.
“We should be hopeful about that,” he said. “It’s not a wasted effort.”
There also was a lengthy discussion on how policies would dictate what happens in the event a teacher or student does test positive and who would need to be kept home. And going into flu season, it will likely be required for anyone who is sick — no matter with what — to stay home for at least 10 days.
While the focus right now is preparing for the hybrid model, the district’s stated ideal scenario has been to return to five-day-a-week, all-day learning for all students, and as the meeting drew to a close, Brinkman questioned Harrington about the “elephant in the room.”
“Would you feel comfortable opening to 100% in-person learning, given the data we have right now in Routt County?” Brinkman asked.
“Right now, I’d give you a ‘yes,'” Harrington answered. “Though I’m concerned come August, I won’t say that. I think you are correct right now to set out on the journey of getting everyone in school, but if we see a rise in cases as I fear we will in August, I don’t think I would say the same thing.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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