Roaring Fork Schools teachers increasingly leery of return to face-to-face classroom instruction, as announcement looms |

Roaring Fork Schools teachers increasingly leery of return to face-to-face classroom instruction, as announcement looms

School board to discuss in meeting next week

Post Independent education news graphic

As the Roaring Fork School District gets set for a Friday announcement of its planned instruction model to start the new school year, a growing chorus of teachers said a return to physical classrooms would be ill-advised.

Given the summer surge in new COVID-19 cases in the region, a majority of district teachers surveyed last week say a more-structured remote distance learning model is preferred over face-to-face classroom instruction.

The approximately 200 members of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association were surveyed ahead of the district’s announcement, and a follow-up school board discussion slated for next week.

Teachers were asked specifically, “Based on your understanding of public health conditions right now, what reopening plan do you prefer?”

Of the 134 responses to that question, 58.2% said they would prefer a distance-learning model, 24.6% preferred a hybrid model using a mix of both distance and in-person instruction, and 17.2% preferred a full return to classrooms when school starts Aug. 17.

“The biggest concern we are hearing now from teachers is safety,” said Rob Norville, a Glenwood Springs High School science teacher and vice president of the RFCEA, which serves as the local teachers union.

“We want to make sure that the school district is making decisions based on sound science, not political pressure or pressure from the community, just to get back to normal or to help the economy,” Norville said.

The survey results have been forwarded to the school board and district administrators, including Superintendent Rob Stein.

Starting point

The district intends to announce Friday whether it plans to start the new school year either with a distance model that it says would be greatly improved over the stopgap approach used in the spring; a full return face-to-face classroom instruction, or a hybrid mix of the two.

“The announcement will be in the form of a draft plan that will also be reviewed at a board meeting on Wednesday, July 29, and there will be opportunities for feedback and public comment before it is finalized,” Stein wrote in a letter to parents, students and community members on Wednesday.

Stein said the Friday plan is to include:

  • The evidence-based, objective indicators the district will use to define the risk levels that determine which learning model is in effect; 
  • The learning model, based on these metrics and our current risk level, the district will start with on Aug. 17;
  • Details about how the district will determine if and when we need to transition to a different learning model; and,
  • Answers to anticipated frequently asked questions about the selected learning model and starting the 2020-21 school year.

GSHS English teacher Charlie Deford penned a separate letter to district administration and the board expressing his thoughts based on an email exchange with other GSHS teachers.

“I heard from over 60 percent of our teaching staff, and all but two expressed grave concerns about indoor in-person schooling,” Deford wrote in an email to the Post Independent.

In his letter, he wrote, “Though teaching forms such a profound part of our identities, many who responded to my email expressed legitimate health concerns that in-person teaching poses to our lives, our family’s lives, and the lives of our students and community.

“As one teacher in our discussion succinctly put it, ‘Make no mistake – digital, distance learning is horrid and ineffective. But I’m pretty sure hospitalization and death are worse.’”

Whatever instruction plan is decided on, the district will be weighing teacher, staff and student health concerns with those of parents who must juggle work responsibilities along with overseeing their childrens’ schooling at home, if remote learning is the decision.

A major concern for teachers is the potential burden of making sure students comply with the public health requirements that would be in place if the in-person classroom option is chosen.

“If we are asked to go back to the classroom, we need to make sure the plans are in place to make sure it’s a safe working environment,” Norville said.

Deford writes in his letter that he described distance learning after the spring semester experience as “little more than disengaged guided homework …”

However, “In expressing my concerns about in-person schooling, I don’t want to minimize its central importance to both our children and society. The fact remains, though, that our schools are dramatically underfunded. This hamstrings our ability to make school safe for teachers who are at greater risk for deleterious life-long consequences in contracting Covid-19.”

Stein, in his letter to the community, acknowledged that “many people will be unhappy with whatever decision we are compelled to make.”

The Friday announcement is only a “jumping-off point for gathering more feedback,” he also wrote.

“For us to be successful, we need everyone planning and problem-solving together,” Stein wrote. “Thus, some of the unanswered questions we’re all eager for will be addressed over the coming weeks.” 

Two Rivers, private schools plan classroom return

In this August 2019 file photo, students and parents meet outside of Two Rivers Community School in Glenwood Springs.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Meanwhile, the state public charter Two Rivers Community School in Glenwood Springs announced its plans to reopen Aug. 17 in a classroom setting during a “town hall” video meeting with parents and staff Thursday evening.

“There is no perfect plan for reopening schools amid a pandemic,” TRCS Head of School Jamie Nims said in his presentation, acknowledging that “some students, families and staff are anxious and apprehensive about reopening, and some aren’t.”

Unlike the school district teacher survey, 78.6% of TRCS teachers and staff said in a survey that they prefer full-time, in-person learning at school, but with specific measures in place to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Also, 67.1% of parents/families prefer a return to in-school learning, Nims said.

Based on that, TRCS will offer in-school instruction, but parents will be able to opt for remote distance learning if they choose to for health reasons, Nims said.

Strict public health protocols will be in place, including mandatory face coverings for students, teachers and staff while inside the building, and the standard 6-foot distancing to be maintained both in and outside the building. Students and staff will undergo health screenings every morning to make sure they do not have symptoms of the coronavirus.

TRCS plans a “soft open” for the first week of school, Aug. 17-21, with half days for students who will be separated into different cohorts, or pods of no more than 25 students, depending on how many families opt for remote learning.

There will be no school on Aug. 21, then a full opening the week of Aug. 24 with students still separated into pods.

Likewise, St. Stephen Catholic School and Ambleside at Skylark, a Christian school based out of Mountain View Church, also plan to return to in-classroom schooling.

St. Stephen’s decision was based on surveys conducted by the Archdiocese of Denver Office of Catholic Schools, Principal Glenda Oliver said. All 38 schools in the Archdiocese will be returning to school buildings, she said.

“In addition to following CDC and Colorado State health updates, we have been working with the Office of Catholic Schools and the Garfield County Health Department to develop a Health Department-approved reopening school plan,” Oliver said in an email.

“We want our school environment to be as safe as possible for our students and staff and we are taking many necessary precautions to ensure the safest environment possible,” she also wrote. “For those not comfortable having their students return in person, we have an online Catholic School option, connected to our school.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.