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Steamboat School Board considers bringing youngest students back full-time

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — What would full in-person learning for kindergarten to second grade look like?

That’s the question Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks opened for discussion at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Meeks emphasized it was just a conversation, intended to evaluate board sentiment and look at some of the questions on logistics, concerns and potential challenges.

Any reopening would likely start with kindergarten to second grade, he said, see how that went, then move relatively quickly to third through fifth grade. Then, “we would step back and take a look at middle and high school.”

Three elementary school teachers expressed reservations during the meeting about reopening fully, with the primary concern being the ability to maintain social distancing with more kids in the building.

Teacher Carol Harris said they’ve done a good job so far, and that could change “if we roll things out full-force too soon.”

Teacher Laura Lebrun said her classroom wouldn’t allow 20 students to social distance.

“I just want to keep this model that is working,” she said.

“My biggest fear if we go too soon is that we would have to shut down and do remote learning, which is way worse,” said teacher Maggie Moore. “If it is working now, we don’t want to jeopardize that by going backwards.”

One parent spoke in favor of moving forward with a next phase of reopening.

“I feel if this transition is going to happen, this seems to be the safest opportunity,” said Jennifer Gibson, a parent of a fourth- and fifth-grader.

“Kids are not getting what they need from an education standpoint,” Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal Celine Wicks said of the kindergarten through second grade age group. Wicks described the difficulty she is seeing with that age group learning online and requiring adult support almost the entire time they are learning at home.

“My concern is that the (kindergarten) through second kids are losing a lot more instruction time than the third- through fifth-graders,” she said.

Soda Creek Principal Amy Bohmer said she is seeing parents struggle to provide the support required for those ages, especially for fundamentals, like learning to read and basic math skills.

In meeting with her staff, Bohmer said sentiments on reopening were mixed. Some teachers were anxious, while others were eager to get the students back in class full-time. Bohmer said she’d received overwhelming support from parents for going to full-time.

Wicks said the majority of her teachers wanted to bring the kids back every day, though some had concerns. She echoed Bohmer’s feedback from parents.

Part of the impetus for the discussion was Friday’s announcement that Routt County was approved to move from the Safer at Home Level 2 to the Safer at Home Level 1 by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

Allowing for some loosened restrictions, the move means the county met all three criteria required for the shift: a case count of under 19 cases in two weeks, less than 5% positivity rate and low hospitalizations.

While the district has had two positive cases among students and one among staff this school year, Routt County Director of Public Health Roberta Smith commended the district — working with the public health department — on taking swift action. Those three cases did not spread beyond those individuals, she said.

“I think the system is working,” she said, adding that communication and transparency also played a key role. “Yes, we learned lessons, and there are things we hope to improve on. And we are going to see more cases — and that’s what we prepare for.”

School Board President Kelly Latterman said the fact the virus didn’t spread in the schools indicates mask-wearing and social distancing is working.

“We are doing great as a community,” Smith said, noting that there were fewer than 19 cases in a two-week period consistently for “quite some time” other than a “couple blips in July.”

In terms of reopening the youngest grades, Smith said one lesson learned has been the value of cohorts. If contact tracing were required with full-time students, a benefit would be easier contact tracing with a more concentrated group.

“Rather than a student coming two days, then having to track down where they’ve been the other three days … from a public health standpoint, it might be easier to contact trace having a more concentrated group rather than finding out all the activities they did when they weren’t in school,” Smith said.

She noted with one of the positive cases, they had to extend the quarantine to the Boys and Girls Club of Steamboat Springs, where a COVID-19 positive student had spent time for additional child care while not in school.

Smith said there is a challenge of spacing more kids out in the classroom, and the guidance now being used for the elementary students is 3 to 6 feet.

Mask wearing would absolutely continue, Meeks and Smith agreed.

While Meeks noted data showing the kindergarten to second grade age group is less likely to contract COVID-19, the consensus on the most important reason to start with the youngest grades was to best meet the academic and social emotional needs.

Board member Lara Craig pointed to the importance of students being on track with their reading by the third grade. Not meeting that benchmark can result in lifelong struggles, she said.

Smith said the younger kids do get the virus, but the developmental concerns may have long-term consequences.

Craig asked about exploring the earlier plan of having the elementary school students in school every day for a half-day, one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. Wicks and Bohmer said that was their preference from an educational perspective during the summer planning efforts, but it received “a hard no” from parents.

Board members expressed a number of concerns about the timing: the coming flu season and expected increase in COVID-19 cases, college students returning, people spending more time indoors and the winter tourism season.

They also discussed uncertainties about busier lunch times, when kids take off their masks, transportation and transitioning back to hybrid or entirely online if circumstances necessitate.

Meeks pointed out that having the possibility of needing to quickly transition to a different phase is the present situation.

“No matter the scenario, we are going to have to live with that for more months,” he said.

“Surprisingly,” said Wicks, on adapting to change, “our youngest students are our most resilient students and can handle it better than most adults.”

Wicks emphasized that opening fully wouldn’t make changes to the precautions in place.

Latterman noted other school districts in the county that have been fully open, with masks and distancing — through also with smaller student bodies — which have not had any disease spread at this point.

Testing was also part of the discussion during the meeting, which Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington said was not alone the answer.

“It is vitally important to stopping the infection, but not perhaps the key to prevention,” Harrington said. “Social distancing and wearing masks play the biggest part.”

Harrington said he did support opening school fully to the youngest ages.

“If we are going to do it, now is the time to do it,” he said.

Things may look different in December, he said, but given the current numbers, this is a good time to try.

Wicks emphasized the importance of meeting the social emotional needs of the youngest kids, in addition to academics.

“It is worth it to do this,” she said, despite the risk of having to transition back.

Board members agreed to solicit more feedback from teachers and emphasized the importance of teacher support. They also asked administrators for more precise solutions to some of the concerns and challenges discussed.

The board agreed to move forward with planning, but indicated it would likely be at least two weeks before any final decision was made.

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


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