Lower risk level for COVID spread puts Roaring Fork Schools on track for Sept. 21 phased return to classrooms
District will likely start with primary grades first, introduce older students in time
A stable and even downward trend recently in new COVID-19 cases in the region bodes well for a return to in-person learning for the Roaring Fork Schools by the district’s target date of Sept. 21.
The district is holding fast to that timeframe, and won’t bring students back into school buildings any sooner, so as to allow for careful planning toward that return, RFSD Superintendent Rob Stein advised during a Wednesday school board meeting.
Even then, it’s likely to be a phased return to the classrooms for younger, elementary grades and other high-priority student groups, followed by a phased return for older students, Stein said.
“My hope is, looking at the latest trend lines, that we are on track to begin introducing more in-person learning for the primary grades by Sept. 21,” he said during the board’s twice-monthly video conference meeting, as several parents questioned whether a quicker return to classrooms might be possible.
District officials will work closely with public health officials in Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties through next week, and by the week of Sept. 7 will announce the plan starting Sept. 21.
Depending on how things track over the next week and through the Labor Day weekend, that could either involve a phased return to school buildings in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, or, if the risk level backslides, continuing with distance learning for most or all age groups, Stein said in his update to the board.
Board members and some parents questioned why wait, with the risk level lower now based on Garfield County’s most recent 14-day total of new cases — 34, compared to 82 during the prior two-week period and 235 during the final two weeks of July.
“We want to make this transition slowly because we know we can’t afford to make mistakes,” Stein said.
“The states and countries that have done this right, and are not going in and out of opening and closing schools, have worked hard to create the environmental conditions first, then pivoted to in-person learning,” Stein added.
Schools and districts, and even several colleges that have returned to in-person classes too fast have already seen outbreaks, “and they’re pulling back,” he noted.
“It’s very hard to be an outlier in your region on this,” Stein said, referring to the return to classrooms for the neighboring Garfield Re-2 District schools, as well as charter and private schools within the district.
“If we transition more slowly, then we aren’t as likely to then have to pull back because of a serious outbreak that shuts us down,” he said.
Some parents, speaking before the board during the online Google Meets session, challenged that notion.
“As a parent, I can say that it is better now than in the spring, but it’s still difficult,” said Mindy Arbuckle, who has a first and a sixth-grader in Glenwood Springs schools.
“They’re still only learning a few hours each day, and definitely not getting the same education that they would if they were in person,” she said of the online format.
“We seem to be sticking to a timeline that doesn’t fit the present conditions,” Arbuckle added. “I have a hard time hearing that education is not your top priority right now … that public health is more important than that.”
Basalt parent Kale Lacroux said he and his wife have been able to observe this week as their second-grader attempted to navigate remote learning, and said the district is correct in giving younger students priority in returning to the classroom.
“We’ve witnessed nothing but technical difficulties, and saw a 7-year-old child who was home alone responsible for his own education,” Lacroux said. “There are kids in daycare centers who have no help, and don’t know how to ask for help.
“You need to understand that kids in kindergarten through fourth grade cannot do this,” he said. “It’s not fair to make daycare and after school providers suddenly become educators to monitor an education that should be provided in person.”
Some groups of students have already been allowed back into classrooms based on special needs and legal rights around that, Stein said.
That was the highest-priority group of students for access to classroom learning, “as defined by federal or state programs,” he noted.
After that, students who have been identified as “at risk,” and those who have a lack of internet access due to their geographic location or other reason, are also prioritized ahead of general student populations, Stein said.
As for elementary school students, “it is harder for them to access distance learning,” he acknowledged.
The younger the age, the less susceptible they are to contracting COVID-19, based on public health guidance, he also noted.
“What we’re really doing in these decisions is protecting adults in our community,” Stein said.
There’s also unlikely to be any sort of formal “hybrid” phase in between distance learning and in person, he said.
“We’re all eager to increase in-person learning where possible, and focusing on those areas that we’ve prioritized,” he said.
Since formal, real-time online learning began on Monday, the district has seen between 80% and 96% student participation across all grade levels, reported Rick Holt, chief academic officer for the school district.
That’s a significant improvement over the more informal approach the district took in the spring when schools were forced to shut down, when only about 40% of students were engaged online, he said.
There are some areas for improvements to the distance learning model, Holt said, including scheduling for real-time sessions and content management for some age groups.
Stein said enrollment numbers are still a moving target, but first-week head counts suggest the district, which serves approximately 5,000 students, is down about 150 students from projections.
“Once we return to in-person, we will likely see some more families show up,” he said.
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