Timeline shortened for Roaring Fork Schools’ return to in-person learning, but trigger still the same
Roaring Fork Schools will ramp up the timeline for in-person classroom learning, including high schools, once the risk of coronavirus disease spread is lessened.
But that doesn’t guarantee students will return to class soon. The measures to get there — lower case and test positivity rates and stable or declining hospitalizations within the school district — remain the same.
Two of those measures, case rate and test positivity rate, remain too high in Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties to make that move, per the district’s return-to-school plan.
However, instead of waiting effectively three weeks after achieving “Safer Level 1” status under the state’s COVID-19 meter to start bringing the youngest students back to classrooms, the school board on Wednesday agreed it would like to see that timeline changed to one week.
So, if the dial moves to the less-restrictive Level 1 from the current Level 2 on a Wednesday, for instance, K-3 students could start to return by the following Wednesday.
A phased return for older students would follow in subsequent weeks. Families and students would still be given the option to stay with online distance learning for health-safety reasons.
“I do feel for the parents, especially K-3,” board member Maureen Stepp said, after the board heard from several more parents during Wednesday’s board meeting about potential negative social-emotional, mental health and educational impacts of online learning.
“We need to get them back in sooner,” Stepp said.
The board also agreed it does not want to wait until the area moves to the state’s least-restrictive “Protect Our Neighbors” phase for high school students to have the option of returning, as outlined under a plan presented last week.
“To say we won’t bring high school back until Protect Our Neighbors … that could be all year,” board member Jennifer Scherer said, agreeing to an accelerated, phased rollout for a full K-12 return under Level 1.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s color-coded COVID-19 dial shows the current status of each county in the state. Only five counties currently qualify for Protect Our Neighbors status based on lower infection rates — Mesa, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Gunnison and Gilpin.
Dueling pushback — some from parents seeking an in-person return sooner and some from teachers who prefer to wait until it’s deemed safe — has made for a roller-coaster ride in recent weeks as the school district plots a course forward.
Board member Natalie Torres spoke to what some might view as “flip-flopping” on the part of the school board, following earlier stated return dates of Sept. 21 and Sept. 28, and then the more cautious approach announced last week of showing two weeks at Level 1 before returning.
That’s being “dynamic and flexible” as new information comes, she said. “It’s important to be responsive as things change.”
Since the school year began in earnest on Aug. 24 using a distance learning platform for all grade levels, Torres said she is comfortable that the district has “developed a strong remote learning platform.”
“If we had to go back to distance learning [in the event of isolated cases prompting quarantines or a larger outbreak], we’re ready,” she said.
Torres and other board members said they’re also comfortable with the district’s Return to In-Person Learning plan, which outlines the safety measures parents, students, teachers and building staff will be required to follow once students are back in schools.
Several parents spoke during the school board’s video conference meeting Wednesday about the ill effects of extended remote learning on students.
“I’m desperately worried about the mental health of our high schools,” Glenwood Springs High School parent Dendy Heisel said. “We can’t ignore that impact. They are struggling mightily.”
Basalt-area pediatrician Mary Harris said she is partnering with other pediatricians in the Roaring Fork Valley to outline their concerns about the impacts of online learning and too much screentime on younger students.
“It’s imperative that the priority for our community should be in-person learning,” she said. “For our younger children, age 9 and under, we are starting to do harm.”
Others question why neighboring school districts, including Garfield Re-2 and Eagle County Schools, have returned to in-person learning, even under the state’s Level 2 status.
Roaring Fork High School parent Kris Murray said hers is a blended household, where her daughter goes to Roaring Fork in Carbondale, which is on remote learning, and her step-siblings go in person to Coal Ridge High School in New Castle.
“They’re socially disconnected, and they’re not learning,” Murray said. “They’re sitting at home depressed.”
Superintendent Rob Stein advised the board that, in addition to discussing the accelerated return to school with building principals, district leadership will also look for way to provide some “person-to-person” activities for students outside of their coursework.
As to the question of why some districts have made the decision to return to in-person learning and the Roaring Fork district hasn’t, Stein said that decision was based on the school board’s priorities for a more measured, safe return.
“Doing it because others are doing it is not a risk management strategy,” he said. “But if you want to up the risk, we’ll up the risk.”
The district will also explore a board suggestion to try in-person instruction at the upper grades on a limited basis as a pilot project.
However, “that does present some ethical questions,” Stein said, if one school is chosen as a pilot over another.
K-3 parents should also expect to receive an online survey link this week asking how distance learning is going for their students, and what improvements could be made.
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