High schools in the Roaring Fork School District remain on track to reopen to in-person classes Nov. 4, following yet another round of soul-searching during Wednesday night’s school board meeting.
After hearing numerous comments from teachers, parents and students on both sides of the debate — and, as the COVID-19 case rate increases in the lower Roaring Fork Valley — the school board wasn’t inclined to deviate from the plan.
School board President Jen Rupert summed up the general mood of many who were involved in the discussion in one word — “nervous.”
Unless local public health officials and medical advisors recommend otherwise in the meantime, the district is prepared to welcome high school students back to in-person classes full-time next Wednesday following two days of final preparations Monday and Tuesday.
District schools began their phased student return to classrooms earlier this month, starting with grades K-3 on Oct. 19 and grades 4-8 this week.
“We are proceeding as we’ve been given direction (by the board), and with the advice of our public health experts,” Rob Stein, the superintendent of district schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, said to lead off the board’s videoconference discussion.
Given a lack of consensus among some of those same advisors, though, “My degree of confidence in any decision we’re making is not high,” he added.
The district surveyed high school families last week to determine how many students would be remaining on the distance learning plan that has been in place since August, and how many would return to in-person learning.
About 14.3% are expected to stick with distance learning, said Rick Holt, chief academic officer for the school district.
One shift away from the original instruction plan is that high school teachers will need to juggle a mix of students both in the classroom and online.
Because of the myriad nature of high school course offerings and teaching specialists, it would have been too difficult to designate certain teachers for online and others for in-classroom, Holt said.
The board and administrators did hear from both teachers and students who said they don’t see that working too well.
A trio of students from Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale said it would be better for the district to wait until the spring semester to transition high schools back to in-person classes.
“The lack of information from the district is appalling,” RFHS senior Vanessa Leon-Gamez said. “We’ve asked countless questions … and the answers from teachers are always, ‘I’m not sure.’
“School is a week away, and none of us have any idea what to expect. That’s insane,” she said.
Another RFHS senior, Madison Diaz, said the teachers she has spoken with are anxious about the return plan and what is expected of them.
“Some have a fear of speaking out for losing their job, and many don’t feel comfortable returning,” Diaz said. Additionally, “student voices have yet to be heard. We should be essential in this decision.”
Glenwood Springs High School teacher Rob Norville is vice president of the district’s teacher union, the Roaring Fork Community Education Association. A survey of the association’s roughly 200 members — representing about half the district’s teachers — found that two-thirds would prefer to wait until January to bring high school students back to the classroom.
“I am not super comfortable with the return to in-person learning, but I will be if it’s done correctly,” Norville said. “The fact that the (Covid) numbers are increasing is very concerning.”
And, that teachers are now being asked to teach simultaneously in live classrooms and online will need to be better planned out, he said.
Medically speaking, Dr. Brooke Allen of Basalt, who has a student at Basalt Middle School, said it’s not a good idea given the rising case rate to bring high schoolers back to classrooms.
“It’s disturbing that the district has decided to no longer follow public health metrics for decision-making,” she said. “I ask the board to adopt CDC guidelines and postpone full-time in-person learning for the older students…”
Others who spoke, however, encouraged the district to stick with the high school return plan.
Lori Welch, who started the Roaring Fork Families for Choice Facebook page, said it’s still best to give families the choice whether to send their children back to in-person learning, or keep them online.
“I’d like to speak for the students who are not on this call who want to be in school,” she said. “The beauty of this is that people do have a choice. Those who do not want to (have their kids in school) don’t have to.”
Added Glenwood parent Aubrey Glenn, “It’s great that some kids can do (online learning), but a lot of kids cannot. Don’t pull this out from under them,” she said of students who are anticipating being able to be back in schools next week.