Ouray School to offer learning choice

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Students can pick in-person or fully online courses; plan to be mid-August

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Ouray School students will be able to choose between in-person or fully online courses this fall, under a draft plan released this week outlining protocols for reopening the school. But the students who return to school will find things to be a little different this year.

Much of the 20-page plan centers on limiting interactions and keeping students in smaller groups in case one student or teacher tests positive for coronavirus, so it’s easier to determine who else might be infected and needs to quarantine to avoid a whole-school shutdown.

The plan, which won’t be finalized until mid-August, divides students into cohorts by grade level, and details how they may be required to quarantine and work remotely if students or teachers interacting with that group test positive for the coronavirus.

Twenty teachers and staff members are working on four committees to flesh out the plan, alongside new Superintendent Tod Lokey and K-8 Principal Kenneth Nelson. Guidance for reopening was released by the Colorado Department of Education last week.

The district has received about 80 responses to a survey sent to parents last week, and fewer than to percent of respondents said they prefer fully online learning. Students who choose that option will enroll in classes offered by Colorado Digital Learning Solutions and won’t be taught by Ouray teachers, but will still be considered Ouray students, Lokey said. Students won’t be able to change between in-person or remote classes mid-semester, but could choose to switch at mid-year.

The district will pay for the 100-percent-online option on a per-course, per-semester basis. Lokey said it’s not clear yet how much funding the state will provide districts for online students, but it will be enough to cover the cost of online enrollment.

Unlike some plans proposed in larger districts, there will be no blended learning options, in which students attend classes online some days and in-person on other days. That’s due in part to the district’s small class sizes, and because Lokey thinks it would cause more disruption than benefit.

“We have the class size that everybody dreams of, so we can choose other layering approaches,” he said, including cohorts, masks and physical distancing.

Rotating students between online and in-person classes might reduce a classroom from 14 students to seven students, but it would double the amount of preparation for teachers. Instead, teachers will prepare to move online and back to in-person at any time, but they won’t be expected to simultaneously teach students in both settings.

That transition could happen if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID, which would require their cohorts to quarantine, including their classmates and teammates. During that time, the student or teacher’s cohort would move online temporarily, but other grade levels would continue attending in-person classes.

Each elementary grade will be treated as a cohort, with efforts made to minimize close contact between students in different grades. Because middle and high school students share teachers across grade levels and have greater variety in their courses, those levels will likely be treated as larger cohorts, Lokey said.

“The group I care about keeping in the building the most is Pre-K through 4,” he said, because those students are least capable of independent learning and have the least amount of movement within the building, making it easier to limit contacts. Keeping them on campus also avoids child-care issues for families, he added.

New information also indicates younger children are less likely to cause COVID-19 spread. In guidance released last week, the Colorado Department of Education said “global COVID-19 evidence suggests that younger children play a smaller role in onward transmission of COVID-19,” and the risk of young children passing the virus to each other or to adults is lower than older children and adults.

While the goal is to maintain in-person classes as much as possible, a split-school model could be used if necessary to reduce the number of people in the building, with only middle and high school students moving to remote learning.

If the school needs to close and move all classes online due to an outbreak or state or county mandate, special education students may still be able to come to campus for individual support and instruction, Lokey said. “We won’t shutter the doors; we will have kids here regularly getting their services.” These students require accommodations including individualized instruction or small-group learning, mandated by federal education laws.

Lokey is also talking with other local districts about paying for a service that would provide a symptom tracking system for students and teachers and could offer tests and faster results if needed. Before coming to school each day, students would undergo a temperature check and answer questions about any symptoms. Students who can’t access that at home could complete the process at school.

Lokey was quiet on specifics on the program, which is still in an early phase of discussion, but said it could be paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds. It’s intended to help people make their own decisions about when to stay at home, and to help school officials monitor “general community health,” not to see specific health reports about individual students.

If a student needs to quarantine due to community or family exposure, they will be able to continue school work from home in some capacity, Lokey said. Classmates wouldn’t have to isolate unless the student tests positive. Teachers who need to quarantine for the same reason may also be able to continue working remotely during that time.

CDE guidelines call for providing alternative assignments for employees who have a higher risk of complications from the virus and don’t feel safe returning. Lokey said he hasn’t formally surveyed staff yet, because he wanted to have the draft plan available to get feedback, but said anecdotal responses have been positive. Teachers will have an opportunity to address those issues, he said, but so far “I haven’t heard enough concern to be overly worried about staffing,”

He has some concerns about substitute teachers, and said he’s reaching out to retirees and trying to “expand the circle” of teachers who may be available. Some may not be interested in one-off daily positions but might be willing to come in for a week or two to cover for a teacher who needs to quarantine, he said.

There are more details to come, including how to handle lunch, potential scheduling changes to limit contact, and adding more counseling and mental health resources. Some students will likely eat lunch in their classrooms, and there’s no decision yet about allowing high school students to leave for lunch, as they usually do.

Committees will continue meeting, and teachers will have professional development in August “to really frontload our ability to teach in multiple systems if we have to switch,’ Lokey said. Families won’t need to decide yet whether to choose the in-person or fully online option until later this summer, though they’ll have to commit to one before classes start.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit organization that places reporters in underserved areas. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support her work here in Ouray County. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the work at the Plaindealer.