Re-2 administrators and parents try to find a common ground on masks for school reopening
Rifle-area schools look to ease parent worries and find a happy medium with in-person learning, safety protocols
After a few heated moments early in Wednesday night’s Garfield School District Re-2 town hall meeting, district staff and school board members explained the reasons why they chose to mandate all students wear masks, regardless of age, as schools in Rifle, Silt and New Castle prepare to open up in 10 days.
“As all of you have been on this journey since March with all of us, we know more every day. We also know that polices, practices and recommendations have changed every day since March 13 right up until Tuesday,” Superintendent Heather Grumley said of public health guidance to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are several entities that have put forward policy that has changed, and health care workers have been a part of our conversations along with staff.”
Re-2 schools plan to return to the classroom and in-person learning on Aug. 24, except for those families who opt for online learning for health safety reasons. Garfield 16 schools will also return to in-person learning beginning Sept. 1, and are also providing families with an online option. The Roaring Fork Re-1 schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt return to session on Monday, but strictly using distance learning until at least Sept. 21.
Although the Re-2 board did not vote on the recommendation from Grumley to mandate masks for all students, it did agree in advance to support the decision late Monday evening during the regular school board meeting.
Jason Shoup, a parent of two students in the district and lead welding program instructor at Colorado Mountain College, said it is familiar territory as the district finalizes plans for its return to in-person classes next week.
When CMC shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic several of his students were credits shy of graduating until the governor made the decision to let some schools back in the classroom.
“I was able to bring groups back into my welding shop and get those credits made up and everything and we were working in an industrial setting,” Shoup said. “We were able to wear masks, and make it happen and get them their credits. It can work. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to work.”
Shoup said he understands both sides and he is not a fan of his children wearing masks, but after watching his son and daughter struggle in different ways with distance learning he believes they will get a better education with in-person learning.
Many parents were in attendance for the town hall meetings at Rifle Middle School, the second of three town halls to discuss the back-to-school plan. Many spoke of their frustration with the timing, and how close it is to the start of school, leaving them fewer options.
For Alicia Bartel, who has two children in the district, it has been frustrating, scary and hard, she said.
“I’m on the PTA with one of my schools. We work very closely with our teachers, and my heart goes out to them as well as all of the parents,” Bartel said. “My 5-year-old is very excited, because it is kinder, and it is new to her. She says she will wear a mask; she probably won’t.
“I have a sixth-grader who is very reserved about it, because he just doesn’t know. They won’t be able to see or interact outside of their cohort. He is having a lot of anxiety.”
Student groupings, or cohorts, are recommended by public health officials to limit contact with students outside their designated group throughout the school day and prevent disease spread.
Bartel said there are still some big question marks and plans to give her children the opportunity to attend in-person learning, but is ready to go to distance learning if it is warranted.
“I work part time and a very flexible schedule. If something happens, I can do that, but I don’t know how other parents that don’t have as flexible schedule are going to manage it,” Bartel said. “That’s what is worrisome. My household will be fine.”
Tom Slappey, school board member representing District A, was in agreement with many of the parents on hand Wednesday, sharing their concerns about the masks. But as the father of a second-grader and freshman, he said he wants to give his children a chance to figure things out and be able to return to in-person learning.
“We made a decision in the time here and now, we may make another decision tomorrow or the day after. We’re dealing with a very fluid situation that is going to change. It is going to change every day probably for the next six to 12 months,” Slappey said. “We have to be fluid enough to be able to make decisions based on the science or information that we have at that time. If we aren’t able to do that, the idea of shutting our schools down and not having school next year is a very real possibility.”
Julie Knowles, director of Curriculum and Assessment for the district, cited part of the presentation from the school board meeting when Glenwood pediatrician and Valley View Hospital Chief Medical Officer David M. Brooks, MD, offered that the risk of transmission can be reduced by 80% with masks.
After an hour and a half of answering questions, district officials and many of those in attendance ultimately agreed that opening school back up is the right thing for the children.
“The small win is we can bring our kiddos back. The larger challenge is can we all unify together to do what we can to make sure that our kids and our staff are as safe as they possibly can be so we stand a better chance to keep our schools open for as long as we can,” Grumley said. “We are also prepared, when and if we have to shut down our schools … to make that happen as well.”
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It has been well over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic changed all our lives dramatically. The social restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic have left most of us feeling exhausted and stressed…