Superintendent’s Corner column: After the longest year ever, predictions for an easier year to come
This year feels never-ending because we’re actually in the 14th month of 2020. With more people getting vaccinated and fewer people getting sick, I’m declaring March 1 as the official start of 2021. With that, I’d like to celebrate a few milestones from the longest year ever and make some predictions about the shorter year ahead.
Given that most schools in the state — and across the country — are just now resuming in-person learning, we shouldn’t take for granted that the Roaring Fork Schools have successfully remained open for most of the school year. After cautiously monitoring conditions, learning from the data and instituting strict safety protocols, we resumed in-person learning in phases, starting with preschool in September and finally high school in early November.
Because of our health and safety protective measures and quarantine practices, there has not yet been a documented case of in-school transmission within our district.
Quarantines have been the most disruptive factor to learning and teaching throughout this pandemic. Students, teachers and families endured 90 two-week quarantines of groups ranging from one to 98 students caused by the virus raging in the community. After peaking in December, when there were 797 students in quarantine on one day, those numbers are now hovering in the handfuls.
Teachers and students mastered the art of online learning. Distance learning served all students through the spring and early fall. Once most students returned in person, we launched an online school for approximately 15% of students who were not ready or able to return, and we continued to serve students through distance learning when they were forced to quarantine. Online meetings allowed us to collaborate without the risks of meeting in person, with the additional benefit of cutting down travel time. It also made “you’re on mute” the most-repeated phrase of 2020.
Our schools and community practiced what I would call radical collaboration as organizations and teams subordinated institutional goals and territorial boundaries to common purposes throughout the pandemic. The heroes of 2020 are not those who led from the top, but those who made connections, convened conversations or offered assistance far beyond their normal duties or their organizations’ scope of activities.
The most joyful news of our prolonged 2020 was the arrival of vaccines, and they are being administered in our valley quickly and efficiently because of the radical collaboration among local health partners.
By Feb. 8, the date by which the governor announced he hoped to begin vaccinating teachers, 394 — that’s 44% — of our district employees had already received their first shots. At present, 78% of our staff have been vaccinated, and the rest should be done by the end of February. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of local medical providers to educate our staff, almost all of our teachers have opted to get vaccinated.
As our prolonged 2020 comes to an end, I offer a few predictions — not promises, so believe them at your peril — for the Roaring Fork Schools.
• We will see a slow return to normal, not a sudden shift. Even after vaccinations, we will still be wearing masks and maintaining distance, but those who have been vaccinated won’t have to quarantine when exposed to Covid, and we will be able to gather in larger groups.
• We will enjoy a fairly normal outdoor graduation this spring, but no indoor prom.
• We won’t be running double bus routes next school year, and the school day will resume to its normal length.
• High school students will be vaccinated in 2021, but the vaccine for younger children won’t roll out until winter. Because the risks from Covid are much lower for younger children, school activities will be fairly normal, but the protective measures will still be in place.
• After a year of budget cuts and pay freezes in 2020, either school funding will be prioritized in the next fiscal year, or the consequences will be catastrophic: major cuts to programs and services; teacher and staff attrition; and another year of frozen salaries for those who remain. I predict that policymakers will avert the crisis, but only after a long, tense and suspenseful legislative session.
• Efforts to mitigate learning loss will be our primary instructional focus in schools. Ironically, the state is still deciding whether to test all students this spring, but we will need to monitor our own data on a student-by-student and classroom-by-classroom basis to target learning gaps and bring all students back to grade level.
• Distance learning will end as a full-time mode of instruction next school year, but we will carry over some of the benefits. The quality and availability of distance learning options will be greatly enhanced after the pandemic, and we might offer elective or evening courses to students from multiple schools through distance learning. Online meetings will remain an option.
• Radical collaboration will continue, building on the relationships that were forged during the pandemic. Partner agencies from the nonprofit and public sector will work together to stave off the lingering social and economic effects of the pandemic. Inequities, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, will persist, but a new level of regional cooperation will improve our communities’ ability to respond.
Those are merely predictions, and we can revisit them in 10 months, after the shortest year on record, to see which ones were right.
Rob Stein is Superintendent of Roaring Fork District Schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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