Steamboat middle schoolers to return to full-time, in-person school March 22

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say that persuasive essays shared during the meeting were from sixth grade students, not high school students.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Steamboat Springs School District plans to bring middle school students back to school full time and in person in two weeks on March 22.

During its Monday meeting, the Board of Education also opted to wait at least until March 22 to make a decision on bringing high school students back.

The move comes as local public health officials report cases in Routt County are stable, and the county has been in level yellow on the state’s dial framework for nearly two weeks. For that level on the dial, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment suggests in-person instruction for all grades.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has different guidelines, which make it unclear what exactly is being recommended. By case incidence, which is about 199 cases per 100,000 people in the county, the recommendations would have all middle and high schools in virtual learning. But when looking at positivity rate, which is 4.3% for the county, the CDC would recommend all levels of school be in person.

“The CDC guideline is a one size fits all, and you could argue that is not correct,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, the county’s chief medical officer. “I think we are a year into this now, we’re allowed to use our own intelligence and judgment a little bit and make our decisions based on what we see at hand.”

Kindergarten through second-grade students returned to full-time, in-person learning two weeks ago on Feb. 22, and third- through fifth-graders returned to class Monday.

“It was great to say to the kids, ’see you tomorrow,’ on their way out the door,” said Soda Creek Elementary School Principal Amy Bohmer.

The district’s teachers also received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last Friday, and after two weeks, they will reach full immunity and no longer be required to quarantine.

Bringing back students at the middle and high school levels can be more complicated than elementary students because class sizes are generally larger. Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy said if they do go back full time, 6-foot social distancing is not realistic, and the district needs to be transparent about that with students and parents.

Chapman-Hoy said the current schedule at the middle school was designed with switching the learning format in mind, and it should continue to work, with a few adjustments, when students come back.

“Some tweaks here and there, but we do feel like our current schedule would move into a pretty good daily schedule for kids,” Chapman-Hoy said.

Mass quarantines disrupting school continued to be a worry among some board members. Over the last week, the district has seen four different groups of students quarantined, which affected 76 students and five staff members.

“I think we’re probably going to be dealing with that through the rest of the school year,” said Superintendent Brad Meeks.

Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said many of the quarantines they are seeing now are because of exposure during school sports.

The district also has to contend with state testing, which is in flux as state legislators are debating standardized testing requirements because of the pandemic. The current plan would bring middle school students back about a week before testing is planned to start.

The board favored waiting until its next meeting March 22 to further discuss when to bring high school students back, hoping to get more feedback from school staff, parents and students before then.

During the meeting, several board members shared anecdotes from high school students, with some seniors favoring to stay in the familiar hybrid model. But persuasive essays written by some sixth grade students shared by board member Lara Craig showed support for returning full time.

The worry among some high school seniors is about missing graduation because they are in quarantine, board member Kim Brack said.

Luke DeWolfe, assistant principal and athletic director at Steamboat Springs High School, said there may be some diminishing returns as the school year continues to progress, with the benefits of bringing students back lessening the longer they wait.

“We’re in a model now that is working to some degree. Do you want to throw these other variables in there to a model that we know is, ultimately, better but creates a lot of issues?” DeWolfe said. “If it is something that we’re strongly considering for the high school, the sooner the better. Farther down the road, I think, it really gets challenging.”

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