As many Colorado school districts switched to remote learning around Thanksgiving because of surging community COVID spread, the 5,300-student Roaring Fork district stayed the course on in-person instruction.
This week, although three of its four high schools closed for four days starting Tuesday because of COVID infections and associated quarantines, the rest of Roaring Fork’s schools are operating as usual. They offer five days of face-to-face instruction for students at all grade levels — albeit with a slightly shortened school day.
District leaders and staff describe this fall as a logistical and emotional roller coaster, but believe that in-person learning is best for most students — especially those from low-income families.
Roaring Fork, a rural district in western Colorado, began the school year remotely, bringing students back to buildings in waves starting in late October. But district leaders hope to continue with in-person from here on out — as long as it’s safe.
“Schools are a low-risk environment and we’re finding that with our own data,” Superintendent Rob Stein said.
So, what does the in-person experience look like these days? Everyone knows the basics: masks, cohorts, social distancing.
But the devil — and the delight — is in the details. At Glenwood Springs Elementary, to keep the mood light amid the season’s stress, there are ugly sweater competitions and a giant inflatable holiday bear that regularly pops up in new places around the building.
In the lower grades, you might hear a new hand-washing song to replace tired old “Happy Birthday” — maybe a rendition of “Baby Shark”: “Wash your hands, doo doo doo doo doo. Grab some soap, doo doo doo doo doo.”
Audrey Hazleton, the principal of Glenwood Springs Elementary School, said, “Being with kids has really helped … It’s joyful, people feel like they’re effective. It feels familiar.”
At the high school level, students enforce social distancing with jokey retorts: “Back off! I don’t want your COVID cooties.”
And one day this fall, a group of high-schoolers got to ask Stein, who was standing in for their teacher, some pointed questions: “How do you decide on snow days? Why can’t we have them more often?”
“It was my funnest day of the year. It was awesome,” he said, acknowledging that snow days are to school superintendents what potholes are to mayors.
But Stein worries about the pandemic’s toll on educators, especially since community spread is still high in parts of the district. That means continued exposures at school, and extra work contact tracing, covering for absent teachers, and serving newly remote students.
Staff grapple with “the constant feeling that it’s not as good as we like it,” he said.
Garfield County, one of three counties Roaring Fork falls into, is rated red, the second most restrictive category on the state’s COVID dial. The other two counties, Eagle and Pitkin, are rated the less severe orange.
Many parents are thankful and relieved the district is now offering face-to-face instruction.
Parent Norma Baez is one of them. She said her four children — two elementary students and two high-schoolers — had a frustrating run with remote learning. Her second grade son had the hardest time, becoming distracted and irritable, and falling behind academically.
She choked up as she recounted how her kids counted down the days until they could go back to school. The night before their first day, they prepared their school supplies, even their snacks.
“In certain ways, the little ones especially, they became more responsible. They got up earlier … They went running to the bus stop,” she said. “They always liked to go to school, but now they are much happier. They enjoy every little thing.”
Joel Hathaway, principal of Glenwood Springs Middle School, sees the same enthusiasm in his students. Exhibit A: Discipline referrals are down 90% compared with a normal year. In part, it’s because of the structure that comes with COVID-related rules.
Also,“Kids want to be here,” he said. “They’re done sitting at home.”
Nearly 85% of his 472 students are attending school in person, with the rest opting for the district’s fully remote option. Districtwide, the percentages are similar.
Megan Hartmann, a math teacher at Glenwood Springs High School, said she’s glad the district brought students back in person full time and didn’t go with a hybrid model where students attend two days a week. During the two months of remote learning, even some of her highly motivated juniors and seniors in AP calculus struggled, she said.
At home in front of a computer, “it’s easy to not feel that obligation … to kind of let yourself go a little bit, give yourself a break,” she said.
While Hartmann said her own stress level is reasonable these days, the possibility of a sick student is far more alarming than it used to be. When a boy recently said his stomach hurt during her first hour class, she sent him to the office immediately.
“The first time that happens, you’re like, ‘Ahhh’” she said. “That does get disconcerting.”
Hazleton, the elementary school principal, said staff morale is generally high, but wonders about the long winter days after the sheen of the holidays and this week’s vaccine excitement wear off.
“I have a feeling we’ll need to be really aware of how February’s going to feel and how we are going to keep people’s spirits up,” she said.
For Glenwood Springs High School Principal Paul Freeman, this fall’s ever-changing plans and schedules have reshaped his job and made him feel like a novice — more than 40 years after he launched his career.
“My optimism to date has foundered on the rocks of reality on a weekly basis,” he said.
Freeman also fears that even with mostly in-person instruction for many students, it’s not the rich experience they’d normally get. The school days are shorter, and students, often 30 to 40 at a time, still get sent home to quarantine. When that happens, they connect to their in-person classes online — what he called “the keyhole method of learning” because students get only a slice of the classroom experience.
He believes this year’s learning loss could affect an entire generation and will require a national intervention akin to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
What gives Freeman hope that American education can go back to normal in April and May is the newly released coronavirus vaccine.
“Maybe, just maybe, we can salvage two perfect months of school,” he said. “It’s the current story I’m telling myself.”