Steamboat School Board again delays bringing students back amid highest COVID-19 case counts ever
Just 1 member of the board said they favor putting in place the district’s phased implementation plan now
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs School Board again delayed bringing younger students back to school full time amid the highest COVID-19 case counts the county has ever seen and increased pressure from people on both sides of the issue.
The board, which met Monday night, is faced with balancing the physical health and the educational needs of students, but guidance from the state of Colorado says students at all levels should be in school. The decision not to bring students back puts the Steamboat Springs School District in violation of this guidance.
But Routt County is not seeing the same trends when it comes to COVID-19 that the state as a whole is seeing. While Colorado is seeing cases decline, recently dipping below 1,000 new daily cases for the first time since October, Routt County recorded 309 cases in the past two weeks, the highest it has ever been.
“Unfortunately, last week was our worst week ever. We had 50 cases come in on Friday alone,” said Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith.
The district has seen double-digit quarantines affecting hundreds of students since coming back from break in the hybrid-learning model the school has used for most of the school year. The model has done what it was intended to do, as there has been no spread of the virus from cases among students.
Board member Katy Lee said while the hybrid-model can be more difficult for parents, it also provides some level of consistency. It allows schools to limit how many students need to quarantine because of smaller cohorts. If students were brought back, quarantines would likely affect more students.
“All the things that are stressful under hybrid are even worse under quarantine,” Lee said. “We need to be in a place where we can handle that possibility of increased spread in order to say ’yes’ to going to full in-person learning, and I don’t think we’re there.”
Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County chief medical officer, said he supports the state guidance that suggests students should be back in school, but he also noted it is a general state guideline, and Routt County is now an outlier in the state.
“Yes, I support that. I’m just troubled by where we are in our disease state now,” Harrington said. “We’re in uncharted territory, and I think it is hard to predict that this is a safe environment right now.”
Kelly Latterman, school board president, said she felt if the school district had the guidance from the state it has now, students would have started school in person last fall. At the last board meeting, Latterman was the only board member who signaled a preference to bring younger students back at that time.
“I still feel that way now,” Latterman said. “I’m understanding completely that there are high risks of the virus, but we also now understand how it spreads better and how it impacts young people.”
While cases are so high, they have had relatively few cases in school, a testament to the commitment of staff and students to follow guidelines, Latterman said. She noted she also was worried about the inequalities of the hybrid-learning model.
“I ran for school board thinking that I would speak up for students who are traditionally underserved, and the students who are already struggling are struggling even more,” Latterman said. “Many of our kids are being described by their parents as being wilted flowers.”
If the school were to stay in the hybrid model, there would be about 40 days of instruction left in the school year, Latterman said. She said child care, athletics and social gatherings among students have largely negated much of the benefit the cohort system provides.
The other board members were not as keen to bring students back to in-person learning with the disease so prevalent in the community. Board member Lara Craig proposed bringing back just kindergarten students, revisiting an idea that was shot down by elementary principals at the last meeting.
Celine Wicks, principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School, said she didn’t feel that kindergarten teachers would be comfortable with that idea.
“It was an extremely rough week,” Wicks said, nearly tearing up as she described having to see teachers and students test positive for the virus. “I am an educator. I want every single kid to get in the building. I want to reach every single student. This is what I have dedicated my life to. But at sacrificing their health, I don’t think I can do that.”
Staff across the district are feeling uneasy about returning amid such high case counts.
“I think it is scary for our staff to think about coming back full time,” said Amy Bohmer, principal at Soda Creek Elementary School. “When I shared with staff that we were possibly looking at not coming back, I got a lot of ’thank you for caring about our safety.’”
Superintendent Brad Meeks pointed out the added pressure staff have been under, especially because of recent quarantines, and he applauded them for just being able to keep the schools in the hybrid model.
“For district staff, just to start to see those numbers start to come down, if that is hopefully what will happen in the next few weeks, I think that will go a long way to give staff some confidence,” Meeks said.
Vaccinating teachers quickly doesn’t seem to be an answer at this point either, as the county is not receiving a regular allocation of first doses each week. To be able to vaccinate teachers, enough of the 70 years and older group needs to be vaccinated first. Harrington said they likely still have about 1,500 more vaccinations in that group.
To vaccinate teachers by the end of February, which was the date originally given, the county would need to get 300 first-dose vaccines each week.
“Now, we’re looking at the beginning of March, and I am not going to commit to anything, because when I commit to something, it seems to not come true,” Harrington said.
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.