Routt County school districts move forward with plans for in-person learning
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — At this point, the only thing Routt County’s three school districts can do is create a succession of plans for reopening schools.
No decisions are final, and plans made right now are subject to change when the first day of school actually arrives.
“What you will hear tonight is not a set plan,” South Routt School District Superintendent Rim Watson said at a Zoom meeting with parents on July 27. “You will hear planning for any potential scenario that develops.”
For now, all three districts are planning in-person learning for all their students, along with a 100% online option.
“A month from now, we may have to go into a different phase because something changes,” said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks during a Friday Board of Education workshop. “The more the community adheres to safety measures, the more fully we will be able to open schools up.”
Cohorting and hybrids
Based on the data right now, Meeks said, “There is a strong likelihood we can open up in some kind of hybrid model.”
Hayden and South Routt are planning to have all students in school all day, every day, with extensive mitigation efforts.
Cohorting, described Watson, “causes a group of students to be together for a week and not interact with other students.”
South Routt schools will be doing that as much as possible, he said, which is easier at the elementary school level, a little harder for middle school and a lot more complicated for high school.
Watson gave specific examples of what that looks like outside the classroom: each class will go get their lunches; then eat either in their classrooms, gymnasium, common area or cafeteria with only their classmates.
Recesses will be staggered, and students will change classrooms without interacting with other students in the hall.
On buses, which cannot be at full capacity, students will only sit with family members — or when necessary, members of their cohorts. The district’s smaller buses will also be used when needed, Watson said.
Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner described plans for if they have to close for two days or two weeks, and the lessons learned from online learning last spring. If they have to go back to at-home learning, “the students are still in school, and they need to behave like they are in school,” she said.
Steamboat’s hybrid plan has students attending school in-person on staggered days.
On Friday, Meeks announced a big shift from earlier plans — the district is now planning to send all kindergarten through 12th-grade students to school in staggered cohorts. The previous plan was to send elementary school students to school five days a week for half days.
In recent weeks, board members expressed concern that five half days creates transportation challenges and significant conflict with parents’ work schedules.
The idea behind five half days, Director of Teaching and Learning Jay Hamric said, was more consistent interaction for younger students.
But he also noted the complexity of the debate, and the need to support the efforts of the cohorting in the larger community.
“The only way to implement anything successfully is to have community collaboration and buy-in,” said board member Chresta Brinkman.
Some critics of the hybrid models say that on those off days, many families are required to find alternative child care options, which increases the exposure of the kids in the community, thus defeating the purpose of cohorts.
Masks in schools
As per state law, all students and staff will be required to wear masks. While the state requires masks for children ages 11 and up, Routt County requires masks for children ages 2 and up. Some staff members whose faces need to be seen during lessons will wear face shields.
In being closer to Moffat County than Steamboat, Sinner said many of her families aren’t accustomed to Routt County’s stricter mask rules.
However at home, “if it is promoted by families,” she said, “it’s a lot easier for us.”
The schools have extensive other mitigation efforts ready to go — including improved ventilation, outdoor opportunities, temperature and symptom screenings, hand sanitizer and disinfecting measures.
At-home days and in-person schedules
On the at-home learning days, Steamboat students will be responsible for online content.
“Students will not have live/synchronous virtual interaction with teachers during their at-home days,” Hamric explained. “Students may still be required to interact with digital content, teacher videos, flipped classroom assignments, etc. This will obviously vary depending on age and grade level. Activities and expectations for a kindergartner will look different from a high schooler.”
The teachers will be in the classroom five days a week, Hamric said, with cohort classes cut to half the normal size.
Siblings will be placed in the same cohorts — though the high school will be operating on a different schedule.
Elementary and middle school students will be on either a Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule for in-person learning, alternating every other Friday. High School students — because of the need to synchronize with Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs — will be on a Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday schedule for in-person learning, alternating every other Friday.
Meeks emphasized if disease prevalence remains low and stable or lessens, elementary schools would likely be the first to expand in-person learning.
Brinkman suggested facilitating the opportunity for families to create pods with other families to share in supervised learning on at-home days and limit the scope of exposure.
Concerns and solutions
Board member Lara Craig expressed concern about ensuring all kids who are not in school have supervision. She also expressed concern about keeping up standards of rigor when students are only in the classroom two or three days a week.
Board member Kim Brack suggested taking advantage of the community testing to test all students and staff — at the very least as a baseline before going to school.
The board members put in a strong request for Meeks to meet with Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington to establish a set of metrics to dictate when the district would move from one phase to another.
He agreed to create one for Steamboat, likely based on a case positivity rate of somewhere around 5% to 10%.
Board President Kelly Latterman said those benchmarks are very important for communication with families, so they know what to expect as well as getting community buy-in to provide continued support in mitigating the spread of the virus.
All five board members expressed support of moving forward with the hybrid model. Board member Katy Lee listed five questions she still wants answered:
- How can we ensure the mask mandate is followed?
- How can we allow our staff and students to eat and drink in the buildings safely?
- What are the specific protocols for staff and students when a sickness occurs? How does this differ for an illness not suspected to be COVID-19, suspected to be COVID-19 and confirmed to be COVID-19?
- Transportation: how can we get kids where they need to be when social distancing will likely not be possible?
Lee commented on the massive amount of communication she’s received from families on the subject of reopening schools. And the emotion — “the fears of returning, the fears of students falling behind, the social emotional effects of social emotional isolation, the parents feeling pressured to return their full attention to work, the significant number of people with no work to return to, the people who have been working on the front lines this whole time,” she said.
Each of the board members with school-aged students were asked in an emailed question whether they were comfortable sending their own kids back.
“The issue of comfort is a complicated one because it’s personal,” Craig wrote. “This pandemic is extremely uncomfortable for everyone. When you add to that, that there are as many differing opinions as there are sources on the topic of returning to school, it heightens the passion and emotion people feel on the topic. As a parent, all in-person or all online/virtual does not feel right to me given our current circumstances. The hybrid model seems like the right balance, at least for right now.”
Lee answered, “Our high school student will be attending in-building. We have discussed the precautionary measures required, and we are fully committed to adhering to these guidelines. Our family feels comfortable given our particular situation with this decision, but we know the choice between 100% online and in-person learning is deeply personal and depends on a multitude of influencing factors for each household.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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