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COVID exposure traced to Garfield Re-2 buses moves nearly 100 students to online distance learning

About 100 students attending five different Garfield Re-2 District schools remain in quarantine and on the district’s distance learning plan after several positive or presumed COVID-19 cases were traced to potential exposure on school buses.

The school district announced the latest shift from in-person to online learning for large blocks of students in an announcement to parents and the community earlier this week.

It comes on the heels of quarantines triggered by earlier positive cases at Riverside Middle School and Coal Ridge High School where, as of last week, some quarantined students had begun to return to school.

The most recent cases directly impacted students from those two schools again, as well as Kathryn Senor and Elk Creek Elementary schools, and Rifle Middle School, according to the district news release.

“Many of those quarantined received their exposure on the bus,” the release stated.

Both of the impacted bus routes did not run on Monday and Tuesday this week, due to bus drivers needing to be quarantined. The routes resumed on Wednesday and Thursday, Garfield Re-2 public information officer Theresa Hamilton said.

“We identified staff that have CDLs and we got them the appropriate paperwork to serve as substitute drivers for us,” Hamilton said.

However, the situation stressed a student transportation system that already has a short availability of substitute drivers.

“This is a huge issue for us, just like substitute teachers,” Hamilton said.

Several classrooms that were directly impacted by the latest COVID-19 cases in the Re-2 schools transitioned to distance learning, as was the case in the previous incidents. Teachers in the district are being asked to provide instruction remotely to those students, through either the See-Saw or Google Classroom platforms that the district uses.

Garfield Re-2 is one of several area school districts that have decided to start the new school year giving parents and students the option of in-person learning, in addition to a distance learning option.

Garfield District 16 in Parachute, Eagle County Schools and, for now, just the elementary school students in the Aspen School District, also are back to school in person.

The Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt remain on a distance learning plan, without an in-person option, until the risk of disease spread lessens.

As part of a public health investigation that was launched with the latest Re-2 COVID cases:

• All persons diagnosed are being kept home from school until they are no longer infectious.

• Those person’s activities, when they could have spread COVID-19, have been assessed.

• The people who were close contacts of the person(s) with COVID-19 are being instructed to stay home and not attend school or other public activities for 14 days (quarantine) after the exposure.

“Bus riders are considered a close contact if they rode the bus with the infected individual for 15 minutes or more,” according to the district’s news release about the matter. “Any child that was in at least one class or group as the individuals diagnosed with COVID-19, must follow quarantine instructions and stay home from school for 14 days.”

The school district continues to work closely with Garfield County Public Health to conduct contact tracing, and all students and staff members who were identified as having been in “close contact” with those who have tested positive were contacted and advised to quarantine for 14 days.

“Custodial staff had been paying extra attention to all schools, and both deep cleaning and disinfecting schools frequently,” the district release also stated. “All schools had been thoroughly disinfected prior to children returning to school [Monday].”

Hamilton said that no changes in school bus protocols are being made. Buses are already being operated at reduced rider capacity and with extra buses where needed and feasible.

Last weekend, Re-2 announced that the district’s high schools would be opting out of the fall football season after the Colorado High School Activities Association agreed to organize a fall season, in addition to the previously announced spring Season C for football and other traditional fall sports.

One reason the district decided to wait was the extra costs associated with taking teams to away games, as multiple buses would be needed under the protocols.

The district was not yet aware of the bus-related COVID cases at the time the football decision was made, though, Hamilton said.


Timeline shortened for Roaring Fork Schools’ return to in-person learning, but trigger still the same

Roaring Fork Schools will ramp up the timeline for in-person classroom learning, including high schools, once the risk of coronavirus disease spread is lessened.

But that doesn’t guarantee students will return to class soon. The measures to get there — lower case and test positivity rates and stable or declining hospitalizations within the school district — remain the same.

Two of those measures, case rate and test positivity rate, remain too high in Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties to make that move, per the district’s return-to-school plan.

However, instead of waiting effectively three weeks after achieving “Safer Level 1” status under the state’s COVID-19 meter to start bringing the youngest students back to classrooms, the school board on Wednesday agreed it would like to see that timeline changed to one week.

So, if the dial moves to the less-restrictive Level 1 from the current Level 2 on a Wednesday, for instance, K-3 students could start to return by the following Wednesday.

A phased return for older students would follow in subsequent weeks. Families and students would still be given the option to stay with online distance learning for health-safety reasons.

“I do feel for the parents, especially K-3,” board member Maureen Stepp said, after the board heard from several more parents during Wednesday’s board meeting about potential negative social-emotional, mental health and educational impacts of online learning.

“We need to get them back in sooner,” Stepp said.

The board also agreed it does not want to wait until the area moves to the state’s least-restrictive “Protect Our Neighbors” phase for high school students to have the option of returning, as outlined under a plan presented last week.

“To say we won’t bring high school back until Protect Our Neighbors … that could be all year,” board member Jennifer Scherer said, agreeing to an accelerated, phased rollout for a full K-12 return under Level 1.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s color-coded COVID-19 dial shows the current status of each county in the state. Only five counties currently qualify for Protect Our Neighbors status based on lower infection rates — Mesa, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Gunnison and Gilpin.

Dueling pushback — some from parents seeking an in-person return sooner and some from teachers who prefer to wait until it’s deemed safe — has made for a roller-coaster ride in recent weeks as the school district plots a course forward.

Board member Natalie Torres spoke to what some might view as “flip-flopping” on the part of the school board, following earlier stated return dates of Sept. 21 and Sept. 28, and then the more cautious approach announced last week of showing two weeks at Level 1 before returning.

That’s being “dynamic and flexible” as new information comes, she said. “It’s important to be responsive as things change.”

Since the school year began in earnest on Aug. 24 using a distance learning platform for all grade levels, Torres said she is comfortable that the district has “developed a strong remote learning platform.”

“If we had to go back to distance learning [in the event of isolated cases prompting quarantines or a larger outbreak], we’re ready,” she said.

Torres and other board members said they’re also comfortable with the district’s Return to In-Person Learning plan, which outlines the safety measures parents, students, teachers and building staff will be required to follow once students are back in schools.

Several parents spoke during the school board’s video conference meeting Wednesday about the ill effects of extended remote learning on students.

“I’m desperately worried about the mental health of our high schools,” Glenwood Springs High School parent Dendy Heisel said. “We can’t ignore that impact. They are struggling mightily.”

Basalt-area pediatrician Mary Harris said she is partnering with other pediatricians in the Roaring Fork Valley to outline their concerns about the impacts of online learning and too much screentime on younger students.

“It’s imperative that the priority for our community should be in-person learning,” she said. “For our younger children, age 9 and under, we are starting to do harm.”

Others question why neighboring school districts, including Garfield Re-2 and Eagle County Schools, have returned to in-person learning, even under the state’s Level 2 status.

Roaring Fork High School parent Kris Murray said hers is a blended household, where her daughter goes to Roaring Fork in Carbondale, which is on remote learning, and her step-siblings go in person to Coal Ridge High School in New Castle.

“They’re socially disconnected, and they’re not learning,” Murray said. “They’re sitting at home depressed.”

Superintendent Rob Stein advised the board that, in addition to discussing the accelerated return to school with building principals, district leadership will also look for way to provide some “person-to-person” activities for students outside of their coursework.

As to the question of why some districts have made the decision to return to in-person learning and the Roaring Fork district hasn’t, Stein said that decision was based on the school board’s priorities for a more measured, safe return.

“Doing it because others are doing it is not a risk management strategy,” he said. “But if you want to up the risk, we’ll up the risk.”

The district will also explore a board suggestion to try in-person instruction at the upper grades on a limited basis as a pilot project.

However, “that does present some ethical questions,” Stein said, if one school is chosen as a pilot over another.

K-3 parents should also expect to receive an online survey link this week asking how distance learning is going for their students, and what improvements could be made.


Roaring Fork Schools board set to dive into details of back-to-classroom plan

A return to in-person classroom learning for the Roaring Fork School District — whenever that time comes — would be anything but a return to normal, under a detailed plan being reviewed by the local school board Wednesday night.

During a 5-1/2-hours-long special school board meeting Sept. 16, the board agreed to a cautious plan to bring full grade levels back into school buildings when the data regarding the spread of COVID-19 supports a safe return.

That decision hinges on the area being served by the school district, including parts of Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties, moving into what the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment terms “Safer Level 1” in its five-level measure of risk factors.

As of Tuesday, all three counties remained in the “Safer Level 2,” suggesting the risk level is still too high. The three counties would need to be at Level 1 for two straight weeks before the district would implement the return plan, starting with grades K-3 and working up through the middle school grades.

High school students would not return to buildings until the counties achieve “Protect Our Neighbors” status, which is the least restrictive level when it comes to the capacity at which businesses can operate and for larger congregations of people.

The 24-page plan itself outlines numerous strict rules and expectations of parents, students and school staff that are to be followed when students are allowed back into school buildings in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

Among them:

  • Families are asked to scan their child(ren) for symptoms before sending them to the bus or dropping them off at school. Students will also be screened, including with a temperature check, when they arrive at school.
  • Masks will be mandatory in schools for all grade levels and for adults, as well as on buses and throughout the day (with breaks for recess and lunch).
  • Students in elementary and middle school will remain in the same group of students (cohorts) for the day.
  • Physical distancing is to be practiced throughout the day, maintaining at least 6 feet with no physical contact.
  • If a student develops symptoms of COVID-19 while at school, they will be isolated until a parent or guardian picks them up (emergency contact numbers must be kept up-to-date with the school registrar)
  • Students may not be dropped off early, and each school will determine its drop-off window.
  • Schools will have specific pick-up, drop-off, and bus zones, and buildings will have dedicated entry and exit routes.
  • Parents, guests, visitors and unplanned volunteers are not allowed in schools at this time.

The school day is also to be shortened once students return, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. And, the shift from distance to in-person learning would include two transition days for teachers and staff to prepare for the return of students.

“No schools will be operating in a business-as-usual manner for the foreseeable future, but we hope to shape positive school and learning experiences within a challenging new context,” the district plan states.

Currently, all grade levels in the district, with the exception of some groups of special needs students, are receiving instruction from their teachers via an online distance learning model.

“The Roaring Fork Schools are approaching this year with caution, safety, and hope,” the plan states. “When students are learning in-person this year, all students, staff, and families will be expected to follow the safety, health, and hygiene protocols.”

The plan also provides that families will be given the option of having their children remain on a distance learning plan, even when buildings are reopened to students.

Teachers who have indicated they do not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning will be given the option to continue teaching online, Amy Littlejohn, the district’s human resources director, said at the Sept. 16 meeting.

In a recent survey, nearly 19% of the district’s teachers indicated they might not return to the classroom with in-person learning.

Rick Holt, chief academic officer for the school district, said at last week’s meeting that students who continue with online instruction may not have their regular classroom teacher. Students from multiple schools could also be combined in a distance-learning “class” in some cases, he said.

As for buses, they will be limited to two-thirds capacity, and will be cleaned and sanitized on a routine daily schedule same as school buildings, Jeff Gatlin, chief operating officer for the district, said.

The Wednesday school board meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. Viewers and anyone who wants to comment on the plan can log in on the Zoom link provided on the meeting agenda.


COVID caution sign goes up on Roaring Fork Schools’ classroom return plan

Editor’s note: This story has been revised from the original version posted Thursday, Sept. 17 to include additional comments from teachers and parents and information about the classroom return plan.

Natasha Walker decided to put a face to the concerns around the potential spread of COVID-19 in the schools when she logged on to the special Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education videoconference meeting Wednesday night.

Earlier this week, the Early Childhood Learning Center preschool based at Basalt Elementary School was forced to close after staff members there tested positive for COVID-19. Several others were showing symptoms and presumed to be positive.

Walker was one of those preschool teachers who tested positive.

“I thought it was important to put a face to some of the statistics,” Walker said, adding that two weeks after preschool students returned to the building, she and her own daughter tested positive.

“It was right on the coattails of a holiday (Labor Day) weekend, and I brought the COVID virus to my mother in Colorado Springs, who is 86 years old and is now hospitalized,” Walker said.

“We are not just a statistic. We are people with flesh and blood and stories and struggles that are coming from going back live,” she said.

That anecdote was backed by a chorus of concerns expressed by dozens of district teachers during the special board session.

With recent case statistics and new metrics in mind, it’s back to October, at the very earliest, before the school district can safely return even its youngest students back to the classroom.

Most of the shift in direction from another lengthy and sometimes contentious meeting on Sept. 9 has to do with a recent new uptick in the COVID-19 case rate within the district.

The school board had hoped to hear a plan Wednesday for kindergarten- through third-grade students to move from online distance learning to school buildings for in-person classroom instruction starting Sept. 28.

Instead — bolstered by newly revised data and input from local public health officials — the board backed away from committing to or pushing for any specific dates for that return.

“This is a lot different than what we originally thought we would be looking at this week,” board President Jen Rupert said near the end of the more than 5-1/2-hour-long meeting.

She echoed other board members who noted that the direction they gave last week for district staff to fast-track the K-3 classroom return was based on more encouraging statistics at that time.

The plan

The district’s executive staff did present what it termed a “parent-facing” plan during the meeting Wednesday, after more than two hours of public comments from teachers, parents and even one student.

Details of the plan are still being finalized, and will be distributed publicly and to teachers for their input next week.

In general, though, initially for K-3 and eventually for all students, the return plan will involve numerous expectations on the part of parents, students, teachers and school staff to ensure public health protocols are followed.

For parents and students, that is to include:

  • Home health scans of children before they go to school
  • Strict drop-off and bus-riding rules
  • Mandatory mask wearing for all K-12 students
  • Social distancing and remaining in student cohorts as assigned
  • Keeping students home when sick, and being prepared to pick up students if they develop symptoms during the day. That can run the gamut from a runny nose or headache to a sore throat, new cough, vomiting and fever or chills.

Before being implemented, the return plan will rely on a data metrics system now being used by the state to determine the safety level for certain activities, such as in-person schooling and other large gatherings of people, to resume or continue.

Just since last week, those metrics have changed somewhat, and not in favor of returning to in-person instruction.

The new “COVID Dial” being used by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — measuring the two-week case rate per 100,000 people, test positivity rate and daily hospitalization rate — puts Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties in the Safer at Home “Concern–Level 2.”

Last week, the tri-county area was fairly comfortably in the “Cautious–Level 1” range, based on those three primary measures.

Not particularly unexpected, though, was a surge in the rate of new coronavirus cases and a spike in the test positivity rate following Labor Day weekend.

In Garfield County alone, the case rate per 100,000 people rose from 53.3 last Friday to 93.2 as of Wednesday. The county’s test positivity rate went from less than 4% last week to 5.1% this week.

Under the plan presented Wednesday, for the Roaring Fork Schools to consider returning students to the classroom, even at the younger grade levels, it would need to be at Level 1 for two straight weeks.

That means a consistent test positivity rate of 5% or less, a case rate of less than 75 cases per 100,000, and no more than two new COVID-19 hospital admissions per day.

For now, the three counties only qualify under the latter metric related to hospitalizations.

The plan also advises that high school students would not return to in-person classes until the state’s least-restrictive Protect Our Neighbors level is achieved. Only five counties in the entire state — Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Gunnison and Gilpin — have kept their infection rate low enough to be in that category.

The school board has its regular meeting on Sept. 23, when the plan and various protocols that will be expected of parents, students, teachers and staff when in-person learning does resume will be further discussed.

Teachers’ take

The school board’s backtracking on the reopening plan Wednesday was punctuated by comments from dozens of teachers who said they do not believe it’s a good idea to fast-track a return to the classroom without more time to prepare.

“Yes, we need a plan, and yes we need to be getting more students gradually into school as quickly as it is safely possible. But let’s do it right, let’s do it slowly, and let’s do it once,” said Carbondale Crystal River Elementary School teacher Danny Stone.

Michelle Weaver, a new teacher at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs, said she’s concerned about returning to the classroom because her own child is at higher risk for contracting the disease due to a birth defect.

“I don’t see what the rush is,” she said. “We need to prioritize safety over urgency.”

A survey of district teachers and staff taken at the end of last week revealed that, even under the Safer at Home Level 1 precautions, 18.6% indicated they “might not return to work with in-person learning,” while the vast majority, 72.5%, said they would return.

Carbondale Middle School teacher Rhonda Tathum, who is president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association, the local teachers union, said RFCA members were disappointed with the school board’s direction last week to try to get kids back in the classroom by Sept. 28.

“Educators want nothing more than to be back with our students, but we want to do so in a safe environment,” she said.

Glenwood Springs High School teacher Jessica Meyer said she has a health condition and is also 14 weeks pregnant, which places her in the high-risk category for serious complications if she were to contract COVID-19. A return to in-person classes is simply not possible for her, she said.

Glenwood Middle School teacher Autumn Rivera said it’s unrealistic to think school will be normal this year, even when students are able to return to in-person classes.

“We need to stop thinking about going back to the life we had, and work to deal with the situation that we’re in,” she said.

Some teachers who spoke at last week’s meeting said they would be comfortable having students return to the classroom, as long as proper safety measures are in place.

Parent perspectives

Several parents also spoke during the special session Wednesday, but the majority this week were supportive of the teachers’ point of view. That stood in contrast to the Sept. 9 meeting when the majority of the more than 20 parents who spoke said it was time to get kids back in school buildings.

Glenwood Elementary School parent Keisha Haughton urged the district to retain the option for parents to keep their children on distance learning through at least December.

“We plan to exercise that option,” Haughton said.

Basalt parent Brooke Allen urged fellow parents to listen to the public health experts and support the district in making an informed decision about returning to in-person learning.

“Most of the parents who spoke last week have a misunderstanding of the issue,” Allen said. “There are many in our valley who are truly suffering … this decision is not about fitting our personal schedules and desires.”

Glenwood parent Leticia Burbano said she won’t be sending her students back to the classroom until it’s deemed safe.

“I would like to invite families to think about ways we can contribute to and support a safe return to in-person instruction, especially for students with special needs who need the most in-person instruction,” she said.

Others who spoke Wednesday reiterated a desire for in-person learning to resume sooner rather than later.

“These kids should not be doing online learning day after day,” said parent Lori Welch. “We’re told that children’s screen time should be limited. This is horrible.

“The numbers are as low as they are ever going to be. We need our kids to have that social interaction,” Welch said.

Glenwood Springs parent Stacey Gavrell shared that she has one child at Sopris Elementary School and another at a non-district school that started the year with in-person classes. The district schools need to give it a chance, she said.

“I worry that if we don’t assertively offer in-person learning options, we will be creating new challenges in the area of mental health for all of our students,” she said.


Riverside Middle School transitions several classes to distance learning

Several classes at Riverside Middle School have moved online after a presumptive positive case of COVID-19 at the school, Garfield Re-2 School District said in a news release Wednesday.

“Approximately 66 students and five teachers are being asked to make this transition and quarantine for 14 days,” the release states.

The district became aware of the presumptive positive at the New Castle school Tuesday night.

As in the case of a similar event at Coal Ridge High School last week, Garfield County Public Health is leading the investigation and:

• The person diagnosed is being kept home from school until they are no longer infectious;

• The person’s activities when they could have spread COVID-19 have been assessed;

• The people who were close contacts of the person with COVID-19 are being instructed to quarantine, or stay home from school for 14 days after the exposure.

The Re-2 District said more class options, cohorts and close contacts at the middle school make it difficult to determine all interactions and potential for exposure, which is why “all classroom members are considered close contacts.”

“Any child that was in at least one class or group as the person diagnosed with COVID-19, must follow quarantine instructions and stay home from school for 14 days,” the release states. “Garfield Re-2 and Riverside Middle School are working closely with Garfield County Public Health to conduct contact tracing. All students and staff members that have been identified as in “close contact” with the individual(s) have been directly contacted either via phone or email and asked to quarantine for 14-days. All close contacts have received a letter outlining processes for quarantining and/or isolation.”

Questions can be directed to Garfield County Public Health 970-945-6614, or in Rifle at 970-625-5200.

Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center closes after staffers test positive for COVID-19

Two Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 and another is showing symptoms, prompting its closure until Sept. 28, the school district said Monday night.

“Because of this situation, the Basalt Elementary Early Childhood Center will be short-staffed and will temporarily close until Sept. 28 during the 14-day quarantine period,” a news release from Roaring Fork School District states.

In addition to the three who have tested positive or are showing symptoms, eight staff members are quarantining, said Kelsy Been, Roaring Fork School District’s public information officer.

Out of 31 students attending, 12 are being quarantined. The remaining 19 were in a different cohort — Been said they would have been allowed to continue attending if it weren’t for the staffing shortage.

Pitkin and Garfield counties’ public health departments are coordinating the follow-up, Been said.

“The Roaring Fork Schools are working closely with Public Health and have contacted all students and staff who had close contact with those individuals,” the release states. “The district cannot divulge names to protect patient confidentiality.”

This is the second instance of multiple people testing positive for COVID-19 on the Basalt Elementary School grounds. Three counselors at a day care center based at the elementary school tested positive for COVID-19 during the summer.

In Aspen, the Cottage Preschool temporarily closed Aug. 28 after a student tested positive. The entire preschool, which is on the Aspen School District campus and provides day care for children of faculty and staff, as well as the general public, reopened Sept. 8. It originally opened for the fall semester Aug. 19.

More recently, more than 100 students and staff members were asked to quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 at Coal Ridge High School in Garfield Re-2 School District. Most classes at that school were temporarily moved to remote instruction.

Youthentity column: Career options in the hospitality industry

At Youthentity, we believe that one of the tenets in setting kids up for future success is allowing them to “try on” different roles and careers to better determine their individual strengths, along with their interests and passions. In presenting young people with career options through our youth development programs, we love to introduce them to the Hospitality industry. When considering career tracks to offer our students through our high school career exploration program, Career Academy, hospitality is an obvious choice as our local economy largely relies on tourism.

COVID aside, Hospitality also offers a fair amount of stability, and a multitude of opportunities. In 2019 the industry employed 16.8 million people in the United States alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hospitality comprises myriad roles, which is one of the reasons it’s such an interesting industry in which to work. Hotels and resorts need finance experts, housekeeping, marketing teams, security, engineering and maintenance, conference sales and human resources management, to name just a few common industry jobs and careers. They also need talented and dedicated chefs and restaurant managers, which is our focus at Youthentity.

The industry exists in an expansive geographical range. Cities, small towns, mountains, seaside destinations –hospitality jobs exist everywhere. Industry salaries are quite diverse as well, depending on years of experience and size of the business (employment in a large chain hotel vs. a boutique hotel, for example). The industry employs many entry-level jobs that require basic education and skills, as well as an abundance of management and mid-level positions. Hospitality jobs are often accessible from an educational standpoint as well. Larger hotel chains, such as Marriott or Hilton, may offer management training for employees and encourage participants to experience roles at different hotels in the chain.

Snapshots of common jobs in the hospitality industry

Hotel General Manager

Average salary: $77,000 a year with 10-14 years of experience.

Education required: Most hotel managers will have post-secondary education such as a bachelor’s degree, though it is not a requirement.

Sous Chef

Average salary: $45,000 to $65,000 annually, depending on level of experience and location.

Education: Although a degree is not required to become a sous chef, they are generally required to complete formal culinary training after high school. Associate and bachelor’s degree programs in culinary arts are available at culinary institutes, colleges and technical schools. Culinary students can expect to pay about $30,000 for a two-year associates degree at Johnson & Wales University. A four-year bachelor’s program at the Culinary Institute of America can cost over $100,000.

Hotel Accountant

Average salary (national): $53,000

Education: Although not required, most accountants attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree. However, a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field is considered the minimum education requirement for those who plan to become a CPA.

Restaurant manager

Average salary: $45,000

Education: College not required but encouraged.

There are many benefits of the hospitality industry, including: living in a desirable place; relative job stability; and opportunity for growth, particularly within a larger company. There are, of course, potential drawbacks. When the economy shrinks, hospitality can be one of the first industries to see negative effects. Tourist destinations rich with job opportunities often come with a higher cost of living. Hours can be long, and employees can expect to work many holidays. Through Career Academy, students are able to explore the industry and determine whether it is something that matches their interests and aligns with future goals.

Next month: Careers and jobs in health care and veterinary medicine.

Kirsten McDaniel is executive director of Youthentity.

Board directs Roaring Fork Schools to implement in-person instruction for K-3 by Sept. 28

The Roaring Fork School Board moved to get kindergarten through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28.

The decision came after nearly four hours of presentation, public comment and board discussion Wednesday evening.

During public comment, the mental health of students and families came up as a serious and overlooked problem with distance learning.

Stein presentation

Superintendent Rob Stein opened this part of the board meeting with a nearly half-hour presentation explaining the district’s decision-making process on when to open back up to in-person learning.

He said the district’s three counties — Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle — use different data for their coronameters, hampering the ability to make decisions on consistent criteria.

The state is coming out with its own coronameter, called the dial, that will solve that inconsistency, but for now the district has cobbled together metrics from various sources.

One is the Harvard Global Health Institute, which recommends waiting to open schools until the COVID incidence rate is below 25 new cases per 100,000 people (which would equal 15 cases for Garfield County) over a two-week period.

This was the main sticking point when the district announced on Tuesday that in-person learning would be delayed to at least Oct. 5. At that time the incidence rate was 68.3.

The other of the nine metrics that was not met was having air quality measures in place.

Roaring Fork Schools COO Jeff Gatlin said there was a shipping delay on air filters but that they should be installed soon and would not create a stumbling block to opening for instruction.

Stein said that kindergartners through third-graders would go back to school first for three reasons.

“Those are the ones that are hardest to teach in a distance learning environment, they’re the kids whose developmental needs are the most pressing,” and they’re the group least susceptible to infection and least likely to transmit the virus, Stein said.

Stein concluded his presentation with four options: adhere to protective measures to lower infection rates; choose other metrics to determine opening; rush the timeline; and revisit the guiding principles the board established in May.

Public comment

All 23 speakers during public comment, which took a little over an hour, were in favor of getting students back in school.

Rachel Hahn was “shocked” that mental health was not mentioned as a deciding factor. She said the district is protecting adults at the sake of the mental health of children.

Amy Kaufman, a teacher at Basalt Middle School, said that considering their unique needs and lower COVID risk the younger students could have a different decision-making pathway than the older kids.

Anika Neal from Glenwood, a kindergarten teacher at Sopris Elementary School, asked why all other local districts are back to in-person learning but not Roaring Fork. As a teacher, she said she’s trained to do what’s in children’s best interest, and distance learning is a disservice to students.

Mary Moon, who has children at Carbondale Middle School and Roaring Fork High School, said no solutions have been offered for the technology problems she’s been facing, and her children are getting an inadequate education.

Valley View physician Chris George, a Crystal River Elementary School parent, said the data does not support distance learning, especially when seven of the nine metrics have been met.

Betsy After, with a Crystal River Elementary School kindergartner, said the board is in charge and staff should report to the board.

Brion After, Betsy’s husband, said that distance learning is expanding the racial divide in the community. He also said that opening his business, Independence Run and Hike, during a pandemic was difficult at first, but he learned how to make it work, suggesting the same principle would work at the schools.

Roaring Fork High School student Annabelle Stableford said she can see how the ineffectiveness of distance learning will affect her future.

Board discussion

At the beginning of nearly two hours of discussion board member Natalie Torres said that despite the speakers’ united front, there are families that don’t want to return to in-person learning.

Board member Jennifer Scherer said that there are families of 5,000 students in the district, leaving a lot of opinions unknown.

In regard to the board being in charge, Scherer said, “We aren’t the experts; we hire the experts, and trust them to give us expert advice.”

Board chair Jen Rupert summed up the troubles the board faces in this situation by saying how conflicted she is.

“Every thought has an opposing thought,” she said.

Factors to consider

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to move to in-person learning.

First is that everyone wishes things were like they used to be.

“We all want to get kids back in school,” Stein said.

But there is obviously a coronavirus infection risk to students, staff and families when schools reopen.

If teachers are uncomfortable with returning to in-person learning, there will be staffing shortages.

“Without staff we can’t get back to school,” said Amy Littlejohn, director of Human Resources for Roaring Fork Schools.

Waiting for conditions to improve might be a wise choice because opening schools and then being forced to return to distance learning could be very stressful for everyone involved.

“If there’s a radical spike then we could be required to pivot immediately back to distance learning,” Stein said.

On the other hand, the development of young children is impeded without in-person instruction, and distance learning is difficult for many families.

The adverse effects on mental health of children and families involved with at-home learning cannot be overlooked, as several people noted during public comment.

The district’s efforts to get computer equipment to those who need it is taking longer than hoped, Gatlin said, and internet problems are causing problems with distance learning, a problem that board member Jasmin Ramirez was experiencing that same day.

Back to school

With all this in mind, the board opted for the “rush the timeline” option, charging Stein and his team to develop a plan to get kindergartners through third-graders back in school by Sept. 28. Stein preferred that date to the original tentative date to reopen of Sept. 21 as it would give two and a half weeks to prepare.

The board will meet next week — between its regularly scheduled meetings — to look at the reopening plan.

“I’m confident they’ll bring back a workable plan,” Rupert said in a followup interview.

No direction was given by the board regarding returning the higher grades to school.

“The board was not ready last night to move any further on middle school or high school yet,” Rupert said.

That discussion will take place at the next regular meeting on Sept. 23, she said.

It is possible that if COVID numbers spike between now and Sept. 28, the reopening effort will be scuttled.

“This is an arena that is changing so fast that all of us — board members, exec team, staff, community, parents, kids — are going to have to be open to the understanding that everything is changeable,” Rupert said.


Roaring Fork Schools to stick with distance learning through at least Oct. 5

Roaring Fork Schools announced on Wednesday that it will not transition to in-person learning on Sept. 21 as tentatively planned.

Schools will continue using a distance learning model through at least Oct. 5, according to a news release. 

Tri-county data for Colorado’s newly established health indicators show the risk level is still too high to return to in-person learning, the release states.

The district is using a draft of a state-level coronameter and has adopted the state’s metrics in establishing the indicators that it will use in determining when the risk level is low enough to pivot to more in-person learning.

According to a table provided with the release, in-person learning with restrictions will be considered when the incidence rate is 0-25. Data for Sept. 7 for Garfield County shows an incidence rate of 68.3.

“We know that this news, like our announcement for the start of the school year, will create a mix of emotions, including disappointment, frustration, or relief,” according to the release.

The district will continue to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of students, staff and the community as established in the Back-to-School Guiding Principles that were approved by the board in May, according to the release.

Schooling during COVID creates some labor challenges for Garfield County schools

Roaring Fork School District officials have become accustomed to a few “summer surprises” as the new school year approaches and last-minute teacher resignations come forth.

Perhaps not a surprise this year, though, a few more resignations than usual were turned in, as the district announced in late July that it would be starting the 2020-21 school year with online distance learning to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

Depending on the public health risk after the Labor Day holiday weekend, the district is expected to announce this week whether it’s ready to begin bringing some students back into the classroom by Sept. 21.

Either approach has caused teachers and staff to give pause for different reasons, so it was not unexpected that the district saw 10 teacher resignations in late July and August before online sessions began Aug. 17.

That’s not an unmanageable number of resignations, said Amy Littlejohn, human resources director for Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.

And, with an existing pool of teaching applicants to work from, the district has been able to backfill most of those positions, she said.

“We can correlate half of those (resignations) to COVID reasons,” Littlejohn said. Others were a result of teachers simply deciding to take new jobs elsewhere, she said.

“Some of them had said they were not comfortable coming back with the pandemic, and we also had some single parents who wanted to stay home with their kids while we’re in this environment,” she said.

To help accommodate teachers who also have their own school-aged children, the district sent out a request in early August for available daycare openings. Providers were asked to accommodate students ages 5 to 12 during the day and help provide direction during their online learning sessions.

Angie Davlyn, senior projects manager for the Roaring Fork Schools, said the district ended up filling 30 positions and had more available that were not ultimately needed.

“We knew that was a critical piece to getting teachers back in the classroom,” Davlyn said of teachers who are choosing to conduct their online class sessions from their physical classrooms.

When the district first asked teachers how many of them could use help with daycare, the number was closer to 100, Davlyn said.

“We were surprised a bit at the lower numbers, so people were able to do something different, and some are bringing their own children into the buildings,” she said. The district agreed to accommodate that, as well.

As it does every August at the start of the school year, the school board at its Aug. 26 meeting adopted a resolution declaring a “critical shortage” of teachers, bus drivers and food service workers. That allows the district to hire retired teachers and staff who are already collecting retirement benefits, without any restrictions.

Another area of critical need even before the pandemic hit was having enough substitute teachers to cover classes when a regular teacher is out. That’s even more challenging during the COVID restrictions, Littlejohn said.

“We’ve definitely lost a lot of our regulars in this environment,” she said. “We are actively recruiting, and doing a lot more training of our subs who have stayed on so that they are able to assist with distance learning.”

Garfield Re-2 Schools in New Castle, Silt and Rifle decided to return immediately to the classroom across all grade levels for the new school year. But it did not see an inordinate number of teacher resignations, said Theresa Hamilton, director of communications for the western Garfield County school district.

“We certainly did receive quite a few comments over the summer from staff with concerns about themselves or family members if we returned to in-person instruction,” Hamilton said.

But, the district was able to work with some of those teachers to devote their teaching efforts to the district’s optional distance learning platform, she said.

About 770 district students are doing remote learning, while 3,800 are physically in the schools, Hamilton said.

“We have 23 full-time staff devoted to our distance learning platform, and many others providing both online and in-person instruction, predominantly at the high school level,” she said.

A school district mill levy override approved in 2018 to help boost teacher pay has also helped with hiring and retaining teachers each year, Hamilton said.

Overall, the district hired about 36 new teachers this year.

“That’s a significant improvement from pre-mill levy days of 70-80 new teachers each year,” she said. “We are pleased that our teacher turnover rate has declined and seems to be staying relatively stable.”

The western district does have its hiring challenges same as the Roaring Fork Schools, though, especially when it comes to food services, bus drivers and substitute teachers.

“Our nutrition services department is four people down and we have been supplementing with temporary workers,” Hamilton said. The district’s transportation director and mechanics are also driving routes until two bus driver positions are filled, she said.

To meet the ongoing need for substitute teachers, the district last year introduced a building-level substitute program, where each school has a go-to person to fill in during teacher absences, instead of handling it through an on-call system.

With the practice this year of cohorting students and teachers to limit disease spread in case of an outbreak, that has become even more imperative, Hamilton said.

And, with more teachers being diligent about staying home if they are sick or exhibit any of the traditional COVID-19 symptoms, that also will tax the substitute teacher pool, she said.

“We are trying to keep substitutes to individual buildings so that they do not break student/staff cohorts,” she said.

The Roaring Fork District was discussing a similar building-level approach to ensuring better availability of substitute teachers last spring, before the pandemic hit.