Town hall covers wide scope of issues around reopening schools in Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As school districts across the state, country and world get ready to start the 2020-21 school year, they are taking countless different approaches to act in the best interest of their students, staff and unique communities.
Denver Public School will start remotely, with the potential for some students to return in person Sept. 8. In Mesa County, schools are opening for five-day-a-week, in-person learning.
In Kenya, the entire school year has been canceled, and students will be required to repeat the year. Israel, which had one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in May, is now being held up as a cautionary tale after schools reopened early, only to send tens of thousands of students into quarantine.
The Steamboat Springs School District is moving forward with a hybrid model — half the week in school, half at home. In Hayden and South Routt, the reopening plan is for full-day, in-person learning, with mitigation efforts. All Routt County districts also are offering a fully online option.
On Thursday, a group of panelists discussed Steamboat’s plan for reopening.
The town hall was part of the Steamboat Conversations virtual town hall series sponsored by the city of Steamboat and Steamboat Pilot & Today. Editor Lisa Schlichtman moderated the panel, and she said she received more questions on the topic than any of the previous 24 town halls and far more than could fit into the time allotted.
Steamboat Director of Teacher and Learning Jay Hamric said he fully respects and understands the difficult decisions being made by families, including those who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids to school.
When a parent survey was sent out in June, Hamric said 94% of 1,100 respondents said they were comfortable with in-person learning. Of those, 43.5% said they were only comfortable with safety precautions in place.
There are currently 135 students enrolled in the district’s online school option. Parents have until Aug. 13 to enroll in the online program with a semesterlong commitment. They have a 10-day trial period to change their minds and enroll online. It may not work for some families, Hamric stressed, especially younger kids, who will require more adult supervision.
Regarding what would happen in the event there is a positive case in a school, Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington said, from a public health standpoint, the response would be the same as any positive test in the community — a 10-day isolation period and contact tracing in which close contacts would be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The difference, Harrington said, is in the school’s cohorting model, under which schools are only “mixing small groups of people, and teachers remain in contact with only a small group, so the impact is less if there is a positive case.”
Cohorting also includes only half the number of students in the building at a time, limiting congregating in common areas, eating lunch separately and staggering class change and coming-and-going times, Hamric said.
Superintendent Brad Meeks said the district will continue to work closely with local public health officials and use guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on how to deal with about 10 different potential scenarios around a positive case or suspected positive case among staff or students.
Regarding the potential mixing of cohorts outside the classroom, Meeks said, “It’s going to take everybody. Everybody has to do their part.”
The more everyone wears masks, social distances and practices other mitigation efforts, the more likely it is schools will remain open and open more, Meeks said.
Asked about what would dictate schools moving to fully remote learning, Harrington said the primary number to look at will be the test positivity rate, while ensuring enough tests are administered to adequately measure disease prevalence in the community.
In his most recent calculation, he said Routt County has a current rate of 1.28% and usually stays around 2% to 3%.
It would be a 5% test positivity rate that would trigger changes at schools and elsewhere in the community, Harrington said. At this time, he said the county’s rate is staying stable at about seven or eight cases a week.
Those changes could happen quickly, Hamric noted, and the district has plans on how to communicate that transition to families. With the blended learning model, he said, there will already be a structure in place for both remote and in-person learning.
In terms of testing, it isn’t practical to test 2,400 students every week, Harrington said. And if tests take a week to turn around, it isn’t very helpful. However, there is progress being made with the new antigen tests, which are fast and accurate, he said, and those may play a valuable role in testing staff and students, but not in time for the start of school.
The district will rely on parents to closely monitor their children’s symptoms before sending them to school, Meeks said, and temperatures will be checked daily.
Meeks described the extensive mitigation efforts in the buildings and on the buses, which include desanitizing fog machines, increased ventilation through the HVAC system potentially including virus-killing UV light and plexiglas at the front desk and nurse’s office.
The district has quite the supply of personal protective equipment, said Steamboat Springs School Board President Kelly Latterman, and will provide each student and staff with two reusable masks, as well as have disposable masks on hand.
“We encourage parents to start at home,” she said, in terms of building habits of wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.
In terms of what blended learning will look like, Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy said the at-home component will be very different from what was offered in the spring. She spoke about maximizing the in-person time and defining what success at home looks like.
The district was operating in more of a crisis mode in the spring, she said, without having adequate time to prepare teachers or students and their families.
Teachers will spend the first six days of the new school year undergoing training focused on blended learning, Chapman-Hoy said.
Especially at the elementary level, Hamric said digital learning days will be designed to introduce concepts and skills that will then be reinforced and practiced in the classroom.
In a survey sent out by the Steamboat Springs Educators Association, Latterman said 50% of teachers and employees said they were comfortable with returning to some type of in-person learning. As with the families and the larger community, “Many people are comfortable and many are not,” she said. Those concerns have been heard, Meeks said, and incorporated into the planning process.
In this difficult time, Hamric noted a silver lining in teaching kids resiliency and how to confront challenges by working together.
Strawberry Park Elementary School teacher Kalie McHaffie also talked about teaching perseverance and ownership of learning, which she said she works hard to teach her students.
She also emphasized that at-home learning will look a lot different than it did in the spring.
“The in-person days are designed for getting the most bang for the buck out of the time with the students,” McHaffie said.
In closing, Harrington acknowledged there is a risk and shared concerns.
“It is true that kids get COVID,” he said, “We know that, and in rare cases, it can be serious. Schools can also be a reservoir for illness for the community, and therefore, it’s not just about the risk for the kids and staff, but the community. We are all in this together.”
Still, he said the local numbers in terms of positive cases and cases in young people are encouraging. There haven’t been any cases in children younger than 10 in Routt County, he said, and no cases or outbreaks related to day cares or summer activities.
“There’s some reassurance there, but no guarantee,” he said. “We are going into uncharted waters.”
Latterman promised transparency and requested some measure of grace and understanding in a rapidly changing environment.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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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.