Steamboat School Board delays bringing K-2 students back full time
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs School District delayed bringing kindergarten through second-grade students back to the classroom full time, rebuffing guidance from the state saying in-person learning is suggested at all levels.
The decision, made during Monday night’s school board meeting, comes as local health officials cast an ominous tone about where cases in Routt County are headed, describing them as “skyrocketing.” Some places like Pitkin County have moved back to level Red and closed restaurants because of increased cases.
The Steamboat district also has needed to quarantine three separate groups of students in the first week back after winter break, even while in a hybrid model.
“We are in what appears to be another, and perhaps our highest, spike yet of cases that will play out over the next week or two,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, the county’s chief medical officer. “It is quite possible that if there was any time that would make a case that conditions in our community were not right (to bring students back), this is going to be the strongest time for that.”
Routt County has seen 99 new cases during the seven-day period ending Jan. 8, bringing two-week cases levels to 156, an increase of 54 cases from the previous two weeks. While the county is operating under level orange restrictions, cases still put the county firmly within metrics for level Red.
The district planned to wait two weeks after winter break to bring students back to the classroom full time, hoping to understand what effect the holidays would have on local case counts. But when school board members saw that cases were climbing again, they opted to delay the decision until their next board meeting in two weeks.
Health officials did not advise the board against bringing students back full time, and the principals at each of the elementary schools in the district said they were prepared to accommodate bringing back the younger students next week.
Celine Wicks, principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School, said while it was the board’s job to consider other factors like local case counts, the school could make the implementation plan work.
Amy Bohmer, principal at Soda Creek Elementary School, said she has received a lot of communication from parents on both sides of bringing students back now.
“I’m just not certain what the best steps are, but I know a lot of parents are really, really anxious about having kids come back to school,” Bohmer said.
Members of the board criticized state officials for inconsistent and abrupt changes in policy around schools they say doesn’t make sense.
For example, in level Orange, of which most of the state is currently in, schools are suggested to forgo extracurricular activities to prioritize keeping students in school, but state health officials also have recently approved variances to allow for sports to be played.
“The recommendations just change so much,” said school board member Lara Craig.
Another recent change saw teachers briefly moved up on the priority list for the vaccine, prompting the district and the county to begin plans to vaccinate teachers. But further guidance from the state derailed these plans, prioritizing those 70 and older over teachers and other essential workers.
Harrington said local public health officials feel teachers should be a priority to get the vaccine. State guidelines not only forbid the county from vaccinating teachers early but also could result in the county being given fewer vaccines.
He estimated teachers could start receiving the vaccine by the end of February, meaning they likely would not have full protection from the vaccine until mid-April.
School Board President Kelly Latterman, who before the vote to delay said she was leaning toward bringing students back, noted that not bringing students back would be against state guidelines.
“We’ve had plenty of conversation this evening about how the state’s guidance doesn’t make sense or it flip-flops regularly, but the dial clearly states that in-person learning for elementary school students should be happening,” Latterman said.
Craig said she believed the board needed to consider the larger community, worrying it was too early for the district to “jump the gun” and bring students back. She and other board members said they have heard from a lot of parents on both sides, some wanting students back in school and other nervous of what that could mean for cases spreading.
Both Harrington and Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith did not advise the board against bringing younger students back to school now.
“We’re concerned about the rise this week,” Harrington said. “We would tell you if we felt you could not continue right now with those plans.”
Students will remain in the hybrid-learning model for at least the next two weeks until the board meets again to discuss the plan.
“We’ll try to continue to bring some data in a couple of weeks, and hopefully, the numbers drop down,” Superintendent Brad Meeks said.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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