‘We are not ready,’ Steamboat High School teachers tell school board
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With the first day of school at less than a week away for Steamboat Springs School District students, eight teachers expressed concerns about reopening at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
Nearly all the teachers who spoke were high school teachers, with their unease primarily focused on some of the logistics around the cohorting model. Lunchtime protocol — when students take their masks off but are expected to socially distance — was another source of anxiety, even for board members.
Steamboat Springs High School teacher Meghan Hanson-Peters noted she had a child in elementary school and felt much more comfortable knowing her kid would be in a cohort of only nine kids and staying with one teacher.
However, at the high school, the students are divided into two groups — essentially creating cohorts of about 350 to 400 students, each one attending different classes with different teachers, Hanson-Peters said.
“A cohort is not really a cohort,” echoed high school teacher Jenny Shea. The teachers will have “sustained contact with 120 to 150 students over the course of four days,” she said.
“It’s not sustainable, and we can’t risk it,” Hanson-Peters told the board. “It’s a complete fallacy to continue to communicate that high school students are being placed in cohorts. It creates a false sense of security, and it’s inaccurate.”
Hanson-Peters advocated for starting with remote learning.
Some of the classes have more than 20 students, Shea said. And when she tried to socially distance her largest class of 17 students, Shea said she could only get the desks 35 inches apart.
“It seems to go against everything we’ve talked about,” she said.
Shea said many other teachers share the same concerns.
“We are not ready,” said high school teacher Deirdre Boyd. She listed a number of concerns, including testing capacity, uneven cohorts, cleaning logistics, passing periods and some students attending school five days a week with the two different cohorts.
B Torres, the district’s interpreter/translator and community liaison, presented the board with a long list of questions.
“Do you realistically believe that parents will keep their symptomatic children home when they have to work to make ends meet?” she asked. She followed with, “Do you think it’s realistic for one custodian per building to keep up with the new cleaning expectations during the school day?”
“And finally, what is the number of students’ parents or grandparents that you will accept dying because of the pressure to return in person?” Torres asked.
Many of the teachers and board members also discussed a desire for more testing.
High school teacher Babette Dickson suggested the district look into purchasing its own antigen testing machine. Dickson said her colleagues expressed a high level of discomfort with the current plan, and she advocated for starting with remote learning.
Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington noted the community’s current capacity and the turnaround time needed to act upon the results simply does not exist at this time for testing all students and staff on a regular basis.
And while there are some of the faster point of care testing machines at clinics in town, Harrington said it will be several months until those are widely available.
Dickson also expressed concerns about low-income kids, English language learners and students in special education suffering the most. Torres asked what would happen to those kids with higher needs — many of whom will be in school five days a week — if they have to be quarantined.
“We deserve answers to these questions and actionable support as we begin what will prove to be one of the most challenging years of our careers,” Torres said.
Several teachers expressed frustration that there had not been an adequate survey to gauge the comfort level of all staff members.
High school media specialist Nicole DeCrette said, on Friday, she and other teachers were told not to open windows and not to take their classes outside at this time.
“That goes directly against the science,” she said.
DeCrette also noted schools as an indoor gathering place with several hundred people as an omission in what is permitted in the local public health guidelines.
Despite the high anxiety, the majority of the teachers also thanked the board and administrators for their hard work in face of what they called an impossible situation.
Each of the district’s principals briefed the board on their reopening plans. They spoke about separate entrances for each grade level, a modified transportation schedule and temperature checks outside. They described plans for eating lunch in classrooms, zoned playgrounds, cleaning schedules and holding extracurricular classes outdoors as much as possible.
At the middle and high schools, students will be discouraged from any kind of congregating and won’t use lockers, but will carry their belongings with them.
Interim High School Principal Dennis Alt said there will be opportunities for outside education as weather allows.
Harrington and Interim Director of Routt County Public Health Roberta Smith both attended the virtual meeting to answer questions.
“The reality is we are going to have a case,” Harrington said. He pointed to decisions that will have to be discussed, like whether to shut down the whole school if more than one cohort is quarantined.
Harrington said that based on the current disease prevalence in the community, he is comfortable advising the schools to open with mitigation efforts in place. But he also noted that given all the unknown variables, it is hard to predict what will happen within the confines of a school.
Because schools shut down earlier this spring, there is a lack of experience in terms of knowing more precisely what the risk level is, he said. “You make your best effort to mitigate that risk,” he added.
Harrington said he had both confidence in the district’s planning and preparation, but also noted his anxiety.
The board discussed delaying the opening of school until some of the concerns brought forth by the teachers could be resolved. They also discussed opening different schools at different phase levels.
Alt assured the concerns already have been heard.
“We are talking about it as a staff and finding solutions and improving the situation as best we can,” he said, which includes reducing some of the class sizes.
Superintendent Brad Meeks noted that when they made the decision to open with the hybrid model in July, the community’s infection rate has since changed little and remained manageable.
“There is not a perfect plan,” Meeks said. “We have to try to minimize the risk based on the science and data we have available. And we fully expect that when we open the doors we will have to make adjustments.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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