Routt County’s charter and private schools are planning for in-person learning

Routt County's smaller schools, including North Routt Community Charter School, are proceeding with plans for in-person learning five days a week.
Scott Franz

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As first day of school quickly approaches, the plans made by all of Routt County’s schools have changed numerous times, and right up until day one, they will remain just as plans, with several alternative scenarios and nothing set in stone.

The schools with smaller student populations have advantages over the Steamboat Springs School District, which has determined it cannot have every kid in school at the same time due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.

Along with the South Routt and Hayden school districts, Mountain Village Charter Montessori School, Emerald Mountain School, North Routt Community Charter School and Steamboat Mountain School are all moving forward with plans to have all their students in the classroom every day.

They will also offer remote learning programs for families who do not feel comfortable sending their children to school, and all are adding extensive mitigation measures within their buildings in addition to following all public health guidelines and mandates.

“Everyone is trying to do their best in this situation,” said Meg Morse, head of school at Steamboat Mountain School.

Morse acknowledged the high anxiety and the inherent commitment to education and children by people who choose the profession. She also acknowledges her small school has advantages in reopening over larger schools.

“We are all asking for a level of support in making the best decisions we can with the information we have at hand,” Morse said. “That’s all any of us can do.”

And all the precautions in the world won’t necessarily prevent the virus making its way into a school, Morse added.

“This is all about risk mitigation,” Morse said. “there is no way to do risk elimination, but we are trying to set up an environment that is as safe as possible for both faculty and students.”

Steamboat Mountain School has capped its enrollment at 70 and has a waiting list. Morse said they have had an increase in interest from local parents who are looking for a five-day-a-week option. Last fall, the private school had 65 students and no wait list.

At North Routt Community Charter School, Executive Brandon LaChance said school leaders, several years ago, were suddenly in a position to be experts on the security necessary to prevent school shootings. Now, he said, they are trying to learn how to be epidemiologists.

“It’s a unique world in trying to figure out how to keep staff and students safe,” LaChance said.

While North Routt is part of the Steamboat Springs School District, LaChance said they coordinate as best as possible but have more flexibility with a smaller enrollment. LaChance’s 105 students will be broken into nine cohorts, which will have one of nine separate locations on campus and one teacher who will stay with that cohort.

Each cohort will have about 10 to 14 kids who will attend school all day, five days a week. They will have daily P.E. classes, including their mountain bike unit in the fall. But otherwise, they won’t interact with other students or staff in different cohorts — even entering and exiting the building through their own entrances.

LaChance also has seen an increase in enrollment requests from “kids coming from town.” But his enrollment capacity was already full in the spring, aside from a few new arrivals over the summer.

Prior to the pandemic, LaChance had a waiting list for about six out of the school’s nine grades. Now there is a waiting list for eight of the grades, he said. And the school’s priority is to remain a neighborhood school for the North Routt community.

“Our parents love our school and don’t want to lose their spot,” LaChance said.

For the approximate 5% of families who have chosen the remote option, North Routt students will have access to a live stream video of their classrooms.

With only about one student per grade choosing remote learning, LaChance said it didn’t make sense to purchase or create an entirely separate online program. And, the synchronous livestreamed learning will give kids continued interaction with their teachers and peers.

“The last thing we’d ever want to do is make a disconnect between the kiddos and the school,” he said.

The biggest lesson from distance learning in the spring, LaChance said, was the need for reliable internet.

By the end of October, Luminate Broadband, a subsidiary of Yampa Valley Electric Association, has committed to bringing a fiber optic cable to Willow Creek, where a majority of students live. Last spring, the school’s parking lot would often be full of parked cars and campers, as that’s where they could pick up Wi-Fi.

LaChance said he surveyed his staff and found the majority is comfortable with the plan to keep each staff isolated to a single cohort.

“I think it shows we take their safety as a huge priority,” he said.

LaChance also is working on parent and student agreements to continue to take safety precautions while not in school.

“We collectively, as a school. will be able to operate for as long a period of time as possible if we all do our part,” LaChance added.

At Mountain Village Montessori, Head of School Michael Girodo said his school was originally aligned with Steamboat’s plan to have elementary students attend for a half day, five days a week. When Steamboat changed course to the every other day schedule, Girodo decided to stick with the half days.

It is more conducive to the Montessori model, which is built around segments of “lengthy and uninterrupted work,” he said, and it was by far the preference of families.

Girodo noted the half-day model does create a hardship for some families in terms of their work schedules, and they are working with those families to help with solutions.

Girodo said the school did lose a few families who needed to align their schedules with their other children enrolled in the Steamboat schools. But Montessori also gained some new families who preferred half days or their remote options — leaving enrollment virtually the same.

Montessori is offering three different options for remote learning. One model includes a live feed to cameras in the classroom. About 15% of families have chosen remote learning.

The school has set up outdoor space to utilize as much as possible and air flow in the building has been increased through an improved HVAC system and open windows.

At Emerald Mountain School, all students who want to can return to class five days a week in cohorts and on a modified schedule.

“We are fortunate that our small size affords us the opportunity to be nimble in our programming and use of space while accounting for all county and state regulations to keep our community safe,” said Head of School Samantha Coyne Donnel.

And as with the other school facilities across the county, Emerald Mountain has made numerous structural adjustments, such as installing touchless faucets, upgrading ventilation, repurposing and expanding rooms to add classroom space.

Another common theme with all public and private schools across the county is incorporating elements into their in-person learning and distance-learning programs that will help make a smoother transition in the event learning goes remote again.

At Steamboat Mountain School, many of the traveling athletes are accustomed to virtual classrooms, something that will simply be expanded if all students go online.

Schools have had to make many changes and face a future of unknowns, Girodo said.

“But the heart of the school has not been lost,” he added.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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