Roaring Fork board hears many thoughts on back-to-school plan, but doesn’t stray from decision to start year with distance learning
A delay to the start of the school year, or opening classrooms to younger students while older students learn online, were among suggestions offered to the Roaring Fork Schools board during a lengthy video-conference meeting Wednesday.
After more than four hours of presentations, public comments and discussion, though, the board stuck with the plan announced last week — largely determined back in May — to open the new school year next month with distance learning for all through at least Sept. 21.
With that, on a 3-0 vote with two members absent, the board adopted a modified timeline to start the new school year with online distance learning due to concerns about the region’s current high risk for spread of COVID-19.
It will include:
- An Aug. 10 return for teachers to collaborate on content development, engage in professional development and prepare for what’s to be an improved distance learning model compared to the emergency version implemented in the spring.
- An “orientation week” for students and families from Aug 17-21 to connect with teachers, get set up on Chromebooks, receive training on various tools and determine individual learning needs.
- An Aug. 24 formal start to online distance learning with set daily schedules and live online classes.
District officials will wait until Sept. 8 to announce any forthcoming changes, including plans to return to classrooms or a hybrid mix of in-person and online learning, based on community risk levels at that point.
Then, “if conditions allow,” district schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt would transition to some degree of in-person learning the week of Sept. 21.
“I’m so appreciative that this board chose back in May, or from the beginning back in March, to use evidence-based (data) to support the health and safety of our kids and the community,” School Board President Jen Rupert said.
From that grew what became known as the “Back-to-School Roadmap,” which envisioned either a full return to classrooms, a hybrid mix of in-person and distance learning, or full distance learning, depending on data kept by public health officials in Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties.
At this time, the area remains at high risk for spread of the novel coronavirus, based on statistical trends. Thus, the decision to open the year with distance learning.
The board did hear more than an hour’s worth of comments from several community members, including parents, teachers and students — some in support of the decision and others offering their own suggestions.
Glenwood Springs parent Scott Henriksen said it’s important to reopen schools as soon as possible for the sake of students and working families. He suggested postponing the start of the school year until after Labor Day, to better gauge whether a return to classrooms would be possible.
“We delayed the start of schools when the Grand Avenue Bridge was being built, and modified the school calendar accordingly, so there’s no reason we can’t do it again,” Henriksen said, referring to the 2017-18 school year when the bridge was still under construction and a major detour through Glenwood Springs was in place.
Basalt parent Bob Daniel offered that distance learning might suffice for fulfilling students’ academic needs, but falls short in supporting them socially, emotionally and with the benefit of extracurricular activities, such as sports.
“Our experience with online education in the spring was abysmal … and is not a substitute for person-to-person contact,” Daniel said. “I want to see the district be aggressive relative to getting kids back in school, at least on a part-time basis.”
Some teachers supported the decision to start the year with 100% distance learning, for the safety of teachers and students, while others questioned whether elementary students couldn’t be allowed to start the year in classrooms.
Glenwood Springs Middle School science teacher Autumn Rivera thanked the district for “prioritizing the safety of students and teachers.”
While the students she has spoken with since the announcement were disappointed that they won’t be returning to the classroom to start the new school year, “I told them, I’d much rather see them on the computer screen than at a hospital or at a funeral.”
GSMS math teacher Shelby Shinabargar said she, too, was “very relieved” when she heard about the decision, noting, “there are a lot of immune-compromised people in our community.”
“Educators are experts at educating, and we can deal with the mental health needs and can catch students up,” she added. “But we can’t bring teachers back (if one were to contract and succumb to COVID-19).”
Basalt Middle School fifth grade teacher Carrey Sims said she’s not so sure about the student mental health aspect.
“I do worry about the mental and emotional development of our students,” she said. “Kids have been isolated through all of this, and they need that mental and emotional support.”
That’s best accomplished through in-person contact, Sims said.
Glenwood Springs High School incoming junior Katherine Young said she’d like to see a part-time return to classrooms for high school students, noting that some of her harder advanced placement classes were not effective in an online format last spring.
“I really urge you to change your mind on this,” she said. “Even a couple of days of in person would really benefit my mental health and academics.”
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Prospective candidates are being sought for two open Carbondale/Basalt-area Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education seats that will be up for election Nov. 2 for four-year terms.