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District stays the course with plan to bring high schoolers back to Roaring Fork classrooms next week

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.


Curtains to rise once again at Ute Theater in Rifle

After working nearly two hours to get the letters on the Ute Theater marquee just right, Kathleen Trappen got the news.

Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide spring shutdown for the Covid-19 pandemic had begun, meaning her work was all in vain.

It was March 7, two days after COVID-19 had officially reached the borders of Colorado. A night of “Outlaw Country” music was to take center stage – until the event got canceled at the last second.

The Ute Theater will be showing Rocky Horror Picture Show this weekend.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“We had already done soundcheck and we were ready to go,” Trappen, a part-time Ute Theater and Events Center stagehand, said Friday. “We were getting ready to feed the bands.” 

The “plug pull” wasn’t isolated to just that night. Ticket sales for a March 17 concert were through the roof: 200 purchased to see Jason Boland & The Stragglers perform live. Thanks to a worldwide pandemic, however, that highly anticipated performance was also scrapped.

“Those people got their refunds,” said Anna Kaiser, one the theater managers.

Almost six months would pass until the Ute Theater would hold another performance in front of a live audience. In the meantime, the same lively community venue that hosted bands and performers like The Wailers, The Young Dubliners and Coco Montoya would mostly be reduced to performances via online streaming services.

Luckily, the Ute is on par to once again break the silence.

On Oct. 30-31, the legendary Garfield County venue will play into the horrors of Halloween as they host screenings of the film “Rocky Mountain Horror Picture Show,” a cult classic produced by Lou Adler.

Kaiser said 44 tickets are available for purchase. Audience members are encouraged to dress up in costumes and bring interactive movie props as suggested by the New Ute Theatre Society. The reduced capacity allows the Ute Theater to maintain compliance with COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the Garfield County Public Health office.

As of Wednesday morning, a combined 26 tickets have been sold for both days.

“I would love to sell all 44 tickets,” Kaiser said. “We were closed for so long, I think people need to get used to the fact that we’re doing stuff again. I think they’re not seeing us as much.”

But amid rising numbers in confirmed COVID-19 across Colorado, how does a venue properly and safely play host to a small crowd of people?

Under Garfield County orders governing how local restaurants, places of worship and gyms can properly host in-person foot traffic, the Ute Theater submitted a business plan that followed guidance on crowd sizes, social-distancing and temperature screening. The plan also requires all patrons to wear masks.

“They came up with a really good plan — they were really conscious of their approach,” GCPH environmental health manager Josh Williams said. “We supported them moving forward with getting reestablished with some events.”

According to county variances, which follow level 2 “Safer at Home” restrictions implemented by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, all in-person foot traffic could encompass 50% of building capacity, with a 100-person contingency limit, Williams said. Outdoor events, meanwhile, had a limit of 175 attendees.

Williams said larger settings are not necessarily more prone to outbreak.

“I think in most of the areas where we’re seeing outbreaks currently are employee-to-employee in workplace settings as well as in homes,” Williams said.

Kaiser said the Ute invested in computer software that helps venues and attendees follow certain COVID-19 and social distancing regulations. Based on this program, the stands will seat about 30 people – six or less to a group – with two empty chairs surrounding each group on all sides. 

Out on the floor beside the stage, another 14 people will be allowed to view the film from high-top tables.

Prior to entering the building, each attendee lucky enough to nab a ticket will have their temperature taken from one of the 10 or so ushers and volunteers. After, however, they’ll be greeted with a few people tending the bar and serving drink specials.

If all goes to plan, 2020 could see a few more live events at the Ute before year’s end. Netflix-featured comedian Jerry Garcia headlines Nov. 14. In addition, events like “Hometown Holiday” and a live performance by Symphony in the Valley are on the schedule.

“It would be a success for me if we see some of our regular faces, and some new people in here as well,” Kaiser said. “We miss people coming here. I want to see some people in costumes, getting into the spirit.”

Tickets for “The Rocky Mountain Horror Picture Show” can be purchased by visiting www.utetheater.com. Readers can also call the theater at 907-665-6569.


Roaring Fork Schools continue to assess classroom return plans as COVID numbers going up

There was more to Monday’s perfect storm than the weather for the Roaring Fork Schools, as a new wave of students made their way back to classrooms for the first time since March.

As the storm blew in, the district was dealing with its first student and staff quarantine situation at Carbondale’s Crystal River Elementary School (CRES) due to confirmed cases of COVID-19 involving individuals at the school.

The response was, for the most part, a textbook example of a routine that’s played out numerous times in districts across the state, including the neighboring Garfield Re-2 Schools, which have been meeting in person since late August.

The CRES quarantine resulted in 30 students in two classrooms and some staff being asked to quarantine and return to the online distance learning program just a week after grades kindergarten to third had returned to school.

“We would rather have the opportunity to test the process without so many variables coming into play all at once,” Superintendent Rob Stein said of the weather concerns, coupled with a major power outage in Basalt, another one in Carbondale on Tuesday, and an even more concerning problem.

“One of the big variables we have to consider in these decisions right now is staff capacity, because of the sub shortage,” Stein said of a lack of both short- and long-term substitute teachers in the district.

The CRES quarantine also resulted in the district’s Carbondale preschool program being shut down temporarily, which directly impacts teachers if they don’t have another childcare option.

On Monday, “we had to be really flexible with things because we were short-staffed, not only because of the snow, but because of program cancelations,” Stein said.

Despite the weather and staffing challenges, schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt welcomed grades 4-8 back to in-person classrooms on Monday.

It was the second week of in-person K-3 classes, and the district is now preparing for the return of high school students on Nov. 4.

Complicating things is the concern around a new spike in COVID-19 cases in Garfield and surrounding counties, as well as statewide, leading to new restrictions on gatherings and business operations.

The Roaring Fork school board is set to meet Wednesday evening to hear a report from district administrators about the resumption of in-person learning. Public comments will be taken, including from teachers, many of which have continued to express concerns about working conditions and efforts to prevent disease spread.

Middle schoolers back in class

Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway said Monday went “surprisingly smooth,” despite the weather.

“Our students were all settled into class and raring to go around 9. Our goal on a perfect day is 8:45,” he said, adding he’s never seen snow on the first day back to school for students before.

“It’s just another gift of 2020,” Hathaway quipped.

Roughly 12% of the 476 students at GSMS have decided to stick with distance learning, he said of the option families have to not return to in-person learning.

That’s consistent with the numbers districtwide. Out of 1,881 students in grades 4-8 from Glenwood Springs to Basalt, 253 (13%) have decided to stay online. A similar percentage of K-3 students also remain online rather than coming to school in person, Roaring Fork Schools Public Information Officer Kelsy Been said.

Carbondale Middle School Principal Jennifer Lamont said attendance was back to normal Tuesday, after some weather-related absentees on Monday.

“In true 2020 fashion, Carbondale schools have been dealt 10 inches of snow, single-digit temperatures and a power outage, but I could not be prouder of how our community has stepped up to adapt to new ways of transitioning, studying, communicating and learning from each other,” Lamont said. “We have had a great few days back in person.”

Carbondale Middle School Principal Jennifer Lamont directs students Monday to their designated entry, part of the school’s coronavirus protocols, on a snowy first day back for middle school students.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Expert advice

Key to the Roaring Fork District’s decision to transition back to in-person instruction after starting the school year online has been a move away from statistical metrics around COVID cases numbers, and instead listening to the advice of public health and medical experts.

“They have continued to say it’s OK to resume in-person learning,” Stein said.

“One of our challenges is that the coronavirus is so new and people are not yet sure of the science,” he added.

However, since many schools have been back in session, public health officials have noted that schools — as long as proper precautions are followed and the response is quick when there is a positive case — have not been sources of outbreaks.

There have been several quarantine responses related to individual cases of COVID-19, yes, but not outbreaks, Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said during her weekly update to county commissioners on Monday.

“The hasn’t been the student-to-student spread in schools that we were concerned about, which is good,” Long said. “That’s what we want to see.”

That observation has been “really foundational to our decision-making,” Stein said. “The evidence is showing that there’s not a lot of spread within schools. That’s a very good sign.”

That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, he said, which is why the school district’s protocols and response plan are critical to preventing outbreaks.