Roaring Fork schools see elevated absences through first week of school

Glenwood Springs Elementary School guest teacher Heather Montross-Cowan sanitizes a work station in the first-grade classroom she was substituting for Jan. 11.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

More than 15% of students were absent from classrooms across the Roaring Fork School District the first week back from winter break amid COVID-19 concerns, isolations and quarantines.

On the first day back, Jan. 4, attendance came in at 83.95%, down from nearly 99% in 2021 due to distance learning and 92.44% in 2020. However, it wasn’t the student issues that caused the most disruption, according to school officials. It was the staff absence rate that was doubled — or in a couple instances, tripled — from baseline.

The result is a minor triage of taking available staff, infusing as many substitute teachers as possible and prioritizing core subjects. In some instances, district main office officials filled in.

“We just flexed some of our teaching positions to make sure that students are getting a full day of learning,” Glenwood Springs Elementary School Principal Audrey Hazleton said. “We are prioritizing math, reading and specific services for kids. But, we’ve been lucky. We haven’t had to cancel too many of the exploratory or special classes.”

Hazleton’s school saw student absences in the triple digits on day one. According to Assistant Principal Lora Smith, staff absences peaked at 18 Monday across all departments as case development increased across the first week back.

On the student side, Smith and Hazleton said that they had heard anecdotally about parents holding their students out from the first week due to pandemic concerns.

Over winter break, Garfield County saw cases of COVID-19 skyrocket to previously unreached levels. On Jan. 5 — the day after classes resumed — new positive cases in one day surpassed the 200 mark for the first time. Before the omicron variant, the highest single-day new cases rate was 101, set Dec. 10, 2020.

As of Monday, more than 100 students across 11 cohorts were in quarantine. The district has had positive tests returned in the double digits four times since classes resumed, after peaking at eight across the first semester.

The baseline average for daily staff absences shot up from 26 to 65.

“It was just the first time we were really seeing higher numbers of absences and quarantines and positives in our schools thus far this year,” Roaring Fork School District Public Information Officer Kelsy Been said. “We were moving staffing assignments. We had to adjust schedules and duty assignments to keep kids in school.”

Bus routes were altered. Classes were consolidated. Work packets were created for parent pick up for students at home. District office personnel went out into classrooms.

Glenwood Springs Elementary School teacher Taryn Pearce leaves work in a drop box in the entryway of the school for parents to pick up Jan. 11.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

The district released updated protocols Monday that decreases the amount of isolation and quarantine time for asymptomatic individuals that meet certain criteria, impacting both students and staff. Smith said that Glenwood Springs Elementary immediately regained several staff members who were “at home, feeling good, ready to come back to work.”

Still, the district leaned — and continues to lean — heavily on substitute teachers, called “guest teachers” within Roaring Fork.

Heather Montross-Cowan, Co-Owner and Operator at Defiance Rafting Company, is filling in for the week for a first grade class at Glenwood Springs Elementary.

“I definitely could not be here, but I just see these kids and I want to be here for them,” Montross-Cowan said. “I’m also trying to protect myself the best that I can and practice safety precautions. I know that there’s always a risk involved as a substitute teacher.”

Montross-Cowan currently has a daughter in fourth grade at Glenwood Springs Elementary. She, along with Hazleton and Been, said that keeping kids in class is of utmost importance, especially at the elementary age.

“I see what happens when they miss a lot of school and it’s hard for them to catch up,” Montross-Cowan said. “I definitely want my daughter to be in school so that she doesn’t fall behind. There’s a sense of feeling lost that I see that happens when they’ve been gone for extended periods of time.”

For the educators, playing the game of staffing whack-a-mole is worth keeping as many students present as possible.

Smith also noted that over the previous years of the pandemic, the second week back from break was when the peaks of spikes occurred in schools.

The hope, then, is that the schools can get through this second week of the semester and that case numbers will follow in the next ones.

“We’re hopeful that, getting further away from the holidays, we’ll continue to see the numbers go down,” Hazleton said.

Reporter Rich Allen can be reached at 970-384-9131 or

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