School district leaders in Holyoke fully anticipate having to shut down schools for a few weeks this fall in response to the coronavirus, but that’s not stopping them from opening classrooms up and starting the school year with in-person learning.
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It’s an increasingly rare approach to the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year as many Colorado school districts are planning on jumping back into classes remotely or through a hybrid model combining in-person and online instruction.
But it’s an essential approach for the 600 students of Holyoke School District RE-1J, who have endured several months of disruptions, Superintendent Kyle Stumpf said.
“The kids need to get back to some normalcy for their own mental health. And I think that for our community to continue to thrive and get back on track financially I think this makes a lot of sense,” Stumpf said.
He described school as a “safe haven,” where many students get breakfast and lunch every day and where parents turn as they need to get back to work.
Alamosa School District, No. Re-11J is also planning to offer students in-person classes as school resumes this month, while Harrison School District 2, in Colorado Springs, opens the school year with in-person schooling for students in grades K-5. There is no perfect way to start a school year in the midst of a pandemic, the district superintendents know. They understand the health risks involved in gathering classes together again and are offering online schooling options for those families not yet comfortable sending their kids back. But they also worry about the ways their students could continue to suffer should classroom doors remain closed.
Part of a child’s experience growing up is going to school in person and seeing their teacher and developing a routine, said Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent of Harrison School District 2. She feels responsible for providing students and families with the academic and social-emotional support they need since their lives have been upside down for nearly five months. Young students need the most support, Birhanzel said, which is why the district is welcoming kindergarten through fifth graders into classrooms first.
Colorado districts have received rounds of guidance from the state this summer as they’ve undergone a grueling decision-making process for how to start the school year — a process that has been riddled with uncertainty as the pandemic has evolved. Guidance from state education and health officials has urged districts to consider strategies like cohorting, masks for students age 11 and older, and limiting high school class sizes for social distancing purposes, but state officials also realize different schools and districts will have to adopt health precautions and learning models that meet their needs. With Colorado’s emphasis on local control, districts are making their own decisions about how to kick off the fall semester, relying on local health departments to help determine the safest way to conduct classes.
Gov. Jared Polis has not issued any executive orders for school operations in the fall, but last week he deemed opening schools in Colorado “reasonably safe” and said he is sending his own children back to school.
MORE: Wealthy Colorado parents are hiring teachers for private learning pods, leaving low-income students behind
Just how safe depends on individual communities and what kinds of practices schools or school districts can put in place, said Dr. Glen Mays, chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health.
“Reopening is not risk-free in terms of the risk of transmission occurring in the school settings,” Mays said. “We certainly know that and we’re seeing that from other states that have already proceeded with opening in some cases.”
It’s still not clear how much fully reopening Colorado schools in the fall could help spread the coronavirus, but Mays said it’s “a very real possibility” that opening schools would contribute to additional transmission — particularly since the virus has spread at schools and summer camps that have opened, including some in Israel and South Korea.
Additional research published in the last few weeks has offered evidence that children can transmit the coronavirus to each other and to adults, Mays said. Unless schools can be exceptionally vigilant, which is hard to do in light of the age groups they serve, schools are likely to be sources of transmission, he said. The extent to which they help spread the disease and the consequential health impacts remain unanswered questions.
But Mays also pointed out a positive development: Cases and hospitalizations in Colorado are on a downward slope, compared with several weeks ago. That bodes well for schools, he said.
The need for both safety and equity
Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, sensed there was “a lot of wishful thinking” in terms of being able to open schools normally in the fall. For many districts, that aspiration has slipped away.
Schoales empathizes with Colorado superintendents as they’ve spent many summer weeks trying to figure out how best to educate students in the fall without clear direction.
“I think that people are making as informed decisions as they possibly can,” Schoales said. “It’s just that there’s conflicting information and it’s not super clear, but people are accessing what information there is.”
For schools to open safely, Mays underlines the measures common in conversations about public spaces, including keeping 6 feet between people, ensuring those in school buildings wear masks, and implementing screening and testing every day. Mays also encourages schools to pay a lot of attention to ventilation, ensuring that systems exchange indoor and outdoor air as often as possible and that teachers can use outdoor spaces for instruction.
In Holyoke, students will return to school on Aug. 19, the back-to-school date the district has been planning on all along, but what they show up to will dramatically differ from what they left in March. Stumpf has overseen the rollout of a variety of health and safety precautions that include the development of a QR code system in which parents can assess their child’s health before they come to school and inform their school about their health status.
MORE: Colorado issues guidance on when coronavirus should prompt a school closure as governor calls in-person learning “reasonably safe”
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The district also has increased the number of hand sanitizing stations it has and is intensifying its deep cleaning, devoting each Friday to thoroughly disinfecting buildings. Additionally, it will separate kids for recess and lunch to maintain smaller groups. Lunch will be served in the cafeteria, gym and a multipurpose area, with 30 students socially distanced in each space at one time. The district will keep students — and desks — 3 feet apart, Stumpf said, under guidance from the Colorado Department of Education.
Holyoke School District will also mandate masks for teachers and students age 11 and older while they’re indoors, exempting those with a medical condition. The district received masks for teachers from the state and will purchase shields for educators so they can better serve students who are hearing impaired and young students who need help articulating words and letters, Stumpf said.
At the elementary school, the district will try to create some cohorting based on grade levels, which could help the district prevent having to close the entire school building in the event of a coronavirus outbreak or spike. But in middle school and high school grades, with students having much more independent schedules, the district anticipates an outbreak or jump in cases that would shut down the entire middle school and high school building.
Stumpf said the district isn’t guaranteeing safety but rather “trying to make an environment that is as safe as possible for both staff and students.”
And even as other districts opt to start the school year in remote learning, with some extending how long they’ll conduct remote learning, Stumpf remains focused on his own community’s needs and what it will take to provide equity to his students. In-person classes are a big part of equity for Holyoke, which is composed of many farmers, ranchers and other essential workers. Stumpf said most parents are still working outside the home, leaning on older children to care for their younger siblings, which doesn’t give them much time to tend to their own schoolwork.
“While we’d like to learn from other districts around us, we still try to do what feels best for our community and for our students,” Stumpf said.
MORE: Students struggle to learn in the face of trauma. Colorado school districts’ first lesson for them this fall: how to cope.
Some teachers can’t wait to get back. Others have mixed feelings.
Harrison School District 2 will start classes on Aug. 17, a week later than originally planned under guidance from El Paso County Public Health, said Birhanzel, the district’s superintendent.
Kids in grades 6-12 will begin by learning from home, before heading back to classrooms after Labor Day.
Among the precautions the district of 11,000 students will rely on is spacing students out on buses, though allowing those from the same household to sit together. Students and bus drivers will wear masks while in transit. Once students arrive at school, they will be required to clean their hands with help from staff or at hand-sanitizing stations.
The district will also enforce social distancing during passing periods, requiring students and staff to wear and limiting the number of students in a hallway at the same time. Students will be spaced out as much as possible in classrooms, with desks positioned facing in the same direction. Kids will stay in separate cohorts as much as possible.
Schools will have bottle fillers for students, prohibiting them from using drinking fountains, and while students will eat breakfast in their classrooms, they will eat lunch in both indoor and outdoor spaces, remaining a safe distance apart.
Additionally, schools will clean classrooms in between classrooms and will promote frequent handwashing and hand sanitizing during each school day.
The district has four learning plans ready to implement, should it need to change course. Along with in-person learning and a hybrid approach, it has also devised a remote model and an e-learning model. While students engaged in remote learning aren’t learning from a teacher in real time, those in e-learning can access live-streamed lessons so that they can be better in tune with their teachers.
Like Holyoke School District, Harrison School District is focusing on making a local decision and applying as many safety measures to its schools as possible.
“I don’t think anyone can guarantee anything right now, but what I can say is we’ve taken every safety protocol possible to ensure it’s as safe as possible for both students and staff,” Birhanzel said.
So far, about half of families with kindergarten and elementary school students who have registered for the school year have chosen in-person learning, she said.
Birhanzel said while feedback from educators has varied, “overwhelmingly” the district’s teachers want to return to their students and families and have appreciated her team’s detailed attention to safety.
Among them is Aspen Proctor, who teaches English and writing classes at Sierra High School. Proctor said she is “so ready” to take back her spot at the front of the classroom, eager to see students from past years, meet new students, pick back up a routine and be there to support her students and community.
“I love the classroom,” Proctor said. “I love the student interaction. I love listening to them discuss the texts and the topics, and I learn from them as well every year.”
Even with asthma and a 5-month-old at home, her excitement isn’t waning. She’s aware of the risks and said everyone has to figure out what they’re willing to risk. She’s ready to be back and plans to monitor the situation and said she will follow the protocols in place.
“I’m not personally worried about health,” Proctor said. “I believe the measures we’re taking are good steps. I also have faith in my students that they’re going to follow the expectations.”
Christina Gillette Randle’s feelings about re-entering the classroom change on a daily basis. Gillette Randle, a first-grade teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School, was part of the Harrison district team that planned how to start the fall semester.
“Ultimately there is no perfect plan,” Gillette Randle said. “There’s not something that’s going to make everybody happy.”
The teacher in her is wrestling with the parent in her. She wants her own children back in school where they can see their friends, have more interaction and get more attention from teachers than she can provide in remote learning, but she’s nervous they will lose part of their love of school because of how much it changes. She also yearns for a normal setting in her classroom and worries about how to meet the needs of all her students while she’s adjusting her teaching.
Perhaps what weighs on her most is the health and safety of her students and her colleagues — something she tries to steer her thoughts away from as she hopes for the best.
“I can’t let those thoughts consume me right now,” Gillette Randle said.
Her anxiety is mixed with excitement. She’s a hugger and knows she’ll have to contain so much of her own personality to abide by the guidelines. But she wants parents to know that she won’t let all the changes stop her from helping their children learn and love the process, regardless of how it plays out.
“I promise that I will love your student as I would without a pandemic and that I will do my best to keep them safe,” Gillette Randle said, “and I will do my best to make sure that they love learning, no matter what the learning looks like at this time.”
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