Superintendent’s Corner: Roaring Fork Schools taking pandemic planning wave for a ride
We are all eager to know what the future holds, especially whether the Roaring Fork Schools will be able to resume normal in-person learning in the fall. While we all want certainty, we have already learned that it is impossible to accurately predict the future during this pandemic.
One observation that might be helpful is that our planning and decision-making during this pandemic has happened in waves, starting with trip and sports cancellations, then school closures, followed by distance learning. Until a wave draws near the shoreline, you don’t have a good sense of how big it is, how fast it’s moving, and what kind of impact it will have when it finally breaks.
In an effort to read the waves before they arrive, we have been collaborating with local public health experts and considering local and state requirements for public gatherings and spaces to determine what the fall start of school might have in store. While it is too soon to make any decisions, we have begun to map out different scenarios for resuming school in the fall.
Our scenarios fall into three broad categories along a spectrum: on one end, being allowed to reopen our schools for a return to in-person learning; on the other end, being required to keep our schools closed and delivering instruction through distance learning; and in the middle, being allowed to partially reopen our schools and offering a hybrid of the two. As if this isn’t complicated enough, health authorities are telling us that we might need to move back and forth from opening to closing depending on the trajectory of the virus. Unfortunately, there is really no likelihood that we will simply resume to the old normal as if the pandemic never happened.
Our teachers, school leaders, and department leaders will be spending a lot of time over the next few weeks and months action planning around all three scenarios. The details are complex and innumerable. Imagine, for example, how kindergarten teachers will rearrange their classrooms to keep her students six feet apart; how PE teachers will develop activities that don’t require students to touch the same ball or equipment; or how to check every kids’ temperature before they enter the school.
All of our action planning and decision making will abide by a simple set of principles. First, we will prioritize student, staff, and community health, safety, and wellbeing over all other considerations. While there are legitimate debates underway about balancing health, the economy, and personal liberties, our schools will be following the guidance of public health authorities in developing plans for reopening.
Second, we will always prefer face-to-face learning over distance learning whenever it is safe to do so. We have confirmed during the last quarter of the school year that learning at a distance is like most things at a distance — not as good as being there in person. When it isn’t possible to be together in person, we will still commit to maintaining regular connections with our students and to supporting them academically, socially, and emotionally.
Third, we anticipate that we will have to fill in for lost learning during school closures, in spite of everybody’s best efforts to continue learning this spring. We will need to ensure academic rigor and expect students to work on grade-level learning as we simultaneously use flexible approaches to fill critical gaps in learning. In this arena, as well, we will commit to following research based practices rather than outmoded traditions about how to achieve the highest outcomes for all students.
Finally, we will need to stay flexible and strategically target students’ differing needs. For example, while all students are entitled to face-to-face interactions, some age groups or subject areas might need more in-person or real-time learning than others.
We have already seen some changes to how we operate in this environment, including an increase in collaboration among our teachers and staff. The need for increased collaboration will continue as teams of teachers work together to ensure the safety and academic advancement of all students under what might be changing circumstances. We will also have to work collectively to reduce the risk of virus transmission and to be responsive if COVID-19 cases increase.
It can be unsettling not knowing what the fall will look like, and stressful to think about all the possibilities for which we must be ready. As we plan for an uncertain future, the best we can do is to make sure we are prepared to respond to the waves before they crash into the shore.
Rob Stein is Superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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