‘Quarantine after quarantine’: Steamboat teachers try to weather the most recent COVID-19 surge
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the district received funding from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Just over 50 students at Steamboat Springs High School will be in quarantine until Feb. 10 after being “close contacts” with a student who has tested positive for COVID-19, according to an email sent to district staff Wednesday morning.
This is the third group to be quarantined in the Steamboat Springs School District in the past two days. There now have been at least 20 different groups quarantined in the 30 days since returning from winter break.
Strawberry Park Elementary School has seen more groups quarantined than any other school, and a shift to online learning at the school was extended through the end of the week. The school plans to reopen Monday in a hybrid model.
“It was a difficult week definitely for our teachers,” said Strawberry Park Principal Celine Wicks.
Almost 500 students and nearly 40 staff members in the district have quarantined because of just 19 positive cases within the district’s schools since Jan. 8, according to data complied from emails sent to parents and district staff in the last month. During this time, the district has twice delayed a plan to phase students back into in-person learning because of the high number of new COVID-19 cases locally.
The schools are one of the most visible places where the effects of the coronavirus have played out locally, in large part because the district has been transparent, sharing emails about quarantines sent to parents and staff with the media. Reports of outbreaks in specific restaurants, offices or other settings are rarely disclosed publicly.
At Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting, Routt County epidemiologist Nicole Harty said the local incidence rate of the virus needs to be much lower to prevent the quarantines seen in schools.
Wicks said because of the social distancing, mask wearing and other protocols taken in the schools, it is a safe place for students. What they need is for the community to step up, she said.
“We’re dependent on our community to follow the commitments, and if those commitments are not being followed, then what happens is exactly what happened at Strawberry Park,” Wicks said. “We had quarantine after quarantine, and we are not able to keep our doors open.”
Spread in school has been minimal, largely because of the precautions taken and the fact that district and local health officials have been quick to quarantine students and staff when they have been identified as close contacts.
The effects of just one case in the schools can be large. Just seven positive cases have led to the nearly 100 students and 10 staff quarantined at Strawberry Park. Wicks said every single positive case at the school was because of an outside connection such as extended family or friends coming to visit.
These seemingly innocuous gatherings can quickly snowball to affect many students across the district, and Wicks said having to abruptly shift to online learning is not easy.
“To pivot like that is difficult for teachers,” Wicks said. “They are doing an absolutely amazing job.”
While not perfect, the hybrid model the school is currently following can provide some stability, with quarantines affecting fewer students because of cohorting.
Jessica Reagon, a teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School and president of the Steamboat Springs Teachers Association, said she feels safe when she is in the classroom with students.
“I have more concerns when I am out in public and around other people than I do here,” Reagon said.
She said having to go fully remote could be even worse for students, and she is concerned about student’s mental health if they lost the interaction with peers they currently have in the hybrid model.
“Some people at Strawberry Park are crushed that they are remote this week,” Reagon said. “I really hope that we don’t all have to do that.”
Carolyne Maul, a school social worker and school-based therapist for the district, said not having the personal connection with other students and teachers is really affecting students’ mental health as well as their education. That said, a move to full-time, in-person learning also could be risky.
“If our staff isn’t vaccinated yet, then we could end up going back into remote (learning) and then there is no in-person school for our children,” Maul said.
Reagon said going forward with the district’s implementation plan for in-person learning at this time does not make sense, but she is grateful district leaders are continuing to have that discussion.
“I think that conversation needs to continue happening,” Reagon said.
Many teachers in the district also have children in the schools, which can affect staffing as well. The district created a program at the beginning of the school year to provide child care for district staff, hoping to take one thing off their plates.
Emily Beyer, a grant writer for the district, said the program has been funded through grants from the Yampa Valley Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund and Yampa Valley Electric Association’s Operation Round Up. The district just received another $25,000 from Gov. Jared Polis to continue to fund the program, which Beyer said should allow it to continue for the rest of the school year.
The program is open to all elementary-age children of district employees, and about 50 kids participate in the two different programs, one at Strawberry Park and one at Soda Creek Elementary School. Beyer estimated about 30 different staff members in the district are utilizing the program.
“It is almost like mental health for teachers just to have one less thing that they have to worry about,” Beyer said.
Beyer said responses from an anonymous survey of teachers the district conducted showed a lot of support for the program with teachers saying it allows them to put their minds at ease and teach.
Maul, the school social worker, said juggling her work responsibilities and her children’s online schooling last spring was “the biggest struggle ever.” She has three children in the program.
“I would not have been able to give the time and the work to the parents and the families of the Steamboat Springs School District if this wasn’t available to me,” Maul said.
Vaccines seem to be the key for getting students back in school full time, and Polis recently revised the state’s vaccine strategy, again. Teachers can now start to get the vaccine Monday, but it will still take weeks to get all the teachers who want the vaccine immunized with a first dose and even longer for them to realize the full protection of the vaccine.
Wicks said she hopes the vaccine is the answer. Until then, the community needs to do their part in lowering local COVID-19 cases by following the county’s commitments to containment, Wicks added.
“We absolutely want to be open. This is what teachers do, this is what we all do, dedicating our lives to education, and we want these kids back,” Wicks said. “But we have to collaborate with everyone to make sure that we can get everyone back safely, that is the key.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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More COVID-19 booster shots are getting approved, health officials are saying people can mix or match the brand of these shots, and vaccines for children between 5 and 11 are closer than ever.