Garfield Re-2 Schools’ first “let’s go” moment in implementing its COVID-19 response plan came early in the school year over Labor Day weekend when Coal Ridge High School had a positive case.
About 100 students and nine teachers were informed they would need to stay home and quarantine for up to 14 days, but continue with their coursework and instruction online using the district’s distance learning platform.
“We learned a lot that day,” Re-2 Superintendent Heather Grumley said.
Even with the best-laid plans after weeks of preparation over the summer, there were still a few things they hadn’t thought of, she said.
Like making sure students who had to remain home had their school-issued Chromebooks with them to actually be able to get online and follow their lesson plans.
Students now are instructed to keep their computers with them at all times heading to and from school — just in case.
The response plan itself involved tracking the class list of the person who tested positive, their movement through the school building, identifying those who might have been exposed and then making the phone calls.
“We had no real protocol at that point,” Grumley said. “But once it actually happened, it helped us to solidify those plans.
“Still, it’s not an easy thing to have to make that phone call to the parents and say your student has to be home,” she said.
The district hasn’t had a situation quite like that first one, and most of the instances requiring temporary quarantine since have been far less-involved.
Each time, though, district and school administrators, teachers, staff, and even parents and students, learn a little bit more about how to deal with it.
“We have gotten a lot of support from parents in all of this,” Grumley said. “The resounding message we keep hearing is that kids want to be in school, and they know that if they adhere to the protocols we’re all working to try to keep each other out of quarantine.
“That’s our mission at hand.”
Since that first case at Coal Ridge, the district responded to another positive case at Riverside Middle School in New Castle, where 66 students and five teachers went on quarantine; plus:
•A case that involved five different elementary, middle and high schools and was traced to two school bus routes, sending another 100 or so students to quarantine;
•A much smaller group of students, teachers and part of the front office at Wamsley Elementary in Rifle; and,
•Just this Tuesday, another case at Riverside Middle involving 56 students and five staff members.
In each of the prior cases, the groups of students and teachers have returned to their schools following quarantine; with full understanding that it could happen again.
That “yo-yo” routine, as Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein referred to it during a recent school board meeting — sending students home and reeling them back in when safe — is something that schools providing the option of in-person learning will be getting more and more used to as the COVID pandemic continues through at least this school year, if not longer.
Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt are preparing to pivot from distance learning to in-person classes starting next week, and have been watching closely and learning from the west-end districts and others around the state regarding best practices.
It’s all about adapting, oftentimes on the fly, said Grumley and Garfield District 16 Superintendent Brad Ray.
The D16 schools in Parachute/Battlement Mesa returned to the classroom the Tuesday after Labor Day, Sept. 8.
“We had some pretty proactive planning over the summer, and adopted a strong cohorting approach, as recommended by public health,” Ray said of the practice of maintaining set groups of students who stay together day in and day out and have very minimal contact with other groups, also referred to as cohorting.
D16 had its first quarantine response of the year on Wednesday, when a positive case prompted 27 students and one teacher to be put on quarantine, Ray said.
Earlier in the fall, D16 schools also responded and sent students home or closed for the day when several students appeared to be showing symptoms.
“We talked through that with public health, and worked the best scenario for that situation,” Ray said. “This time of year we always have stuff going around, so we have those protocols and procedures in place.”
With each of its COVID-response incidents, Re-2 has learned something new, Grumley said. But each situation is different, she said.
“There are many variables that go into evaluating and contact tracing a quarantining situation — grade level, cohorting, bus riding activity, athletics, siblings …
“Probably the biggest thing that we have learned thus far is that, like in so many things in this world, the quality of the response is tied strongly to the quality of your data,” she said. “If you have good data to begin with, the precision, timeliness and quality of the response will be significantly better.”
Thus far, Grumley added, “we can say that it is absolutely worth it to do all of the work on the backside to keep as many Garfield Re-2 students in in-person learning as possible.
“It is the right thing to do for students and families.”
Some online, some in class
While the vast majority of Re-2’s 4,600 students are going to school in person, about 735 opted to enroll in the district’s distance learning program for at least the first quarter.
The reasons varied.
Sometimes, a student or family member was at higher risk should they contract COVID-19. Or, they might just be playing it safe to start the school year.
The first quarter ends this week, and students/families will be given the option to switch one way or the other for the remainder of the semester.
“We asked families at the beginning of the school year to settle into one model or another for the first quarter, because we didn’t want students going back and forth,” Grumley said. “We worked with each of them as needed to make sure they had the support they needed.”
Likewise, District 16 has about 25% of its roughly 1,100 students opting for distance learning, Ray said.
Those numbers have been dwindling, though, as students have been allowed to return to in-person instruction as they felt comfortable, he said.
“If that’s what they wanted, and if they felt they could be more successful that way, then that’s great,” Ray said.
Both districts have also worked with teachers who wanted to teach strictly online, often for health reasons, both superintendents said.
District 16 has its own online platform, but is also partnering with Colorado River Board of Cooperative Education Services for some online instruction.
In Re-2, at the elementary level, the district has seven teachers dedicated to online instruction, one for each grade level, and eight at the middle school level, two for each academic subject.
“Many of our high school teachers are doing both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (within a certain time frame) for their students,” Grumley said.
That has been challenging for high school teachers in particular, she said. “I’m not sure if we will adopt that model again” for high school teachers, she admitted.
Other high school challenges
The use of cohorts — typically set groups of about 25 students each, or less — works well at the elementary and middle school levels.
But it’s more difficult in the high schools where students have numerous course options, and take classes with different groups of students on different days.
Grand Valley High School has given it a try, with some success, Ray said.
“We were able to come up with a pretty good plan that seems to be working,” he said, acknowledging that the smaller school size of 310 students makes that easier to accomplish.
Most of the test-positive situations involving elementary classrooms have been limited to a small number of students and a small number of staff, Grumley added.
“At the middle school level, our cohorts are as tight as they can be, and any direct classroom exposure will likely lead to more than a handful of students being quarantined,” she said.
It gets harder to control student interaction and behavior at the high school level, she said.
“Sending 100 kids home out of about 400 was really a little better than we expected for the first exposure,” Grumley said of the Coal Ridge case. “The biggest adjustment that we made at Coal Ridge was to re-emphasize the use of seating charts. That small measure paid off in a big way when the state changed their quarantining requirements for larger cohorts.”
The high school students who have chosen in-person learning tend to be more social by nature, and they want to be in school with their friends and to see their teachers in person. “Sometimes, we have challenges with enforcing the physical distancing, and the wearing of the facial coverings, Grumley said.
“Our principals also spent many pain-staking hours with their leadership teams to find traffic patterns that meet student needs with the highest regard for student and staff safety.
“It was no small feat to design traffic flows, including one-way hallways, lunchrooms and common areas to return to in-person learning.”
Overall, though, there have been very few problems with students at all grade levels not following the rules, she said.
Bottom line, Grumley said, “that’s because they want to be in school, they want to be with their teachers and they want to be with their friends.”
As the weather gets colder and more students move indoors between classes and during breaks, the challenges of maintaining social distancing and keeping gatherings outside of cohorts will also increase, school district leaders acknowledged.
And, with the online platforms in place to fall back on, there will be no snow days off this winter. Instead, buses won’t run and students won’t come to school on bad weather days, but online classes will proceed and attendance will be expected, they emphasized.