Return to school may include half days for elementary students and staggered schedules for older students
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Preparing for phases ranging from 100% online learning to 100% in-person instruction, the Steamboat Springs School District released initial plans for students returning to school in the fall.
The ideal scenario, stressed Director of Teaching and Learning Jay Hamric, would be to have all kids back in school every day. However, with the start of school still nearly two months away and given recent rises in COVID-19 cases locally, statewide and across the country, no one knows precisely what back to school will look like.
On Sunday, only two states — Connecticut and Rhode Island — were reporting a decline in new cases.
As visitors filter into Routt County, eyes are on Arizona, Florida and Texas as the latest epicenters.
Hence, significant and indefinite uncertainties have prompted the district to plan for four distinct phases.
“Our intent and plan is for all students to return to school, in-person this fall (in a Phase 4 environment), unless local or state guidelines prevent it,” Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks wrote in a June 25 letter to families.
However, the plan the district is currently focusing on is Phase 3, which is a blended model of instruction that allows students to participate in both in-person instruction and distance learning.
“We are working on a plan to maximize in-person learning,” Hamric said at the June 22 Board of Education meeting. “We realize, for students, that is the best form for education, but we are also making plans and trying to be strategic in the event that school cannot resume at full capacity.”
And, Hamric emphasized, the district is paying close attention to the ever-changing guidelines and public health orders to take necessary steps to keep staff and students safe.
Phase 4 would be the least restrictive, close to normal, with “distance learning targeted for vulnerable populations.”
Phase 1 would be the most restrictive, with local, state or federal public health guidelines forbidding any in-person learning.
At this time, district officials are recommending a half-day model for elementary school-aged kids, Hamric said.
“Elementary students neede to have daily contact with teachers to provide that consistent, continuous learning,” Hamric said.
They aren’t as independent as the older kids, he noted, and are more in need of that daily connection. Those students also would have some assignments and practice exercises for the time they aren’t in school.
High school and middle school students would be placed in an “A” or “B” cohort group and attend school with that cohort two days a week, rotating a third day a week every other week. When they are not at school, students would be responsible for “asynchronous” remote learning — meaning online or home-based but not live.
The district is also working toward making the schedule work for the students who also attend classes at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, Meeks said.
There is also an option for students at all grade levels to do 100% online learning for those who are not comfortable returning in person. Based on a recent survey, about 5% of families indicated they may choose the online option, Meeks said.
Hamric described some of the additional in-person measures that may be in place in the fall, including temperature screenings, masks, additional cleaning and sanitizing, installation of plexiglass barriers, 6-foot distancing and rearranging of furniture and educational efforts on proper hygiene.
A lot of the social distancing conversations center around avoiding mass gatherings, Hamric said, such as at lunchtime, recess or between classes.
There are also plans to stagger classes, he said, and keep students in the same classroom while having the teachers rotate to avoid a lot of interaction in the hallways.
The district is also considering staggered arrival and pickup times.
“We are trying to minimize flow and traffic within the school,” Hamric said.
There’s also discussion about restricting nonessential visitors and volunteers. And everything will evolve depending on the public health guidelines, and depending on that, not everything being talked about will necessarily be implemented, but it’s all part of the conversation, Hamric explained.
Meeks noted some of the social emotional lessons learned from the spring — such as seeing how important it is for students to have routines, time with friends and regular connections with their teachers and peers.
“The human interaction is very important,” he said.
He also talked about the importance of students establishing relationships with new teachers in a new school year, especially for the sixth and ninth graders.
Academically, Meeks also noted that not everything translates well online.
Accommodating all families and all students at different age levels — especially those with multiple kids in school — isn’t going to match up perfectly for everyone, Hamric acknowledged, and won’t be perfect.
Meeks noted there also are conversations happening around the logistics of transportation and food service, depending on what phase and model ends up being implemented when school starts.
Hamric and Meeks also discussed the importance of beginning-of-year assessments to gauge where students are at the start of the school year and identify learning gaps that may have occurred in the spring. Meeks said the district would likely provide some additional support and tutoring for students needing to catch up.
Asked about career and technical education and the visual and performing arts, Hamric said there is no way those areas won’t be impacted if everyone isn’t allowed back in school at the same time.
“It’s important to remember this is still two months away,” Meeks said.
Meeks said one ongoing discussion — including with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and other superintendents across the state — is what would happen in the event of a student or staff member testing positive.
Meeks talked about the possibility of isolating only the cohort in which the infection occurred and allowing the rest of the building to stay open and students to continue their in-person learning schedule.
In terms of precisely what the in-person component might look like, Meeks said the key number will be how many students are allowed in a classroom or a building at the same time.
For preschool, the Early Childhood Center will likely be able to run on a traditional schedule with all students in school, given the small student population, according to Meeks’ letter to families.
Meeks said some of the primary concerns he’s heard are regarding parents with multiple kids at different grade levels and on different schedules. Child care for those days or half days is also a top concern for working parents, he said.
With a lot of uncertainty remaining, Meeks said district officials are working on some preparation efforts they can control — like stockpiling personal protective equipment and hygiene supplies.
The planning to this point has involved Return to School Committees for each school — comprised of parents, administrators and teachers.
Already, athletes are starting to get back onto the fields, reported Meeks. They are still trying to make decisions around allowing other community groups to use the athletic fields, he added.
Meeks said district officials carefully reviewed their plans to start athletic practices with county health officials and will do the same as they move forward with plans to bring students back into classrooms.
The original start date for Steamboat schools is Aug. 20, which may change by a day or two depending on what is decided at Monday’s special school board meeting.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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