Reopening Ridgway schools a laborious process

  • Trevor Peterson teaches an eighth grade math and science class outside Ridgway Secondary School. To allow for social distancing and air flow, many teachers at the school are teaching classes outside, using windows as whiteboards and clipboards and picnic tables for desks. Liz Teitz-Ouray County Plaindealer
    Trevor Peterson teaches an eighth grade math and science class outside Ridgway Secondary School. To allow for social distancing and air flow, many teachers at the school are teaching classes outside, using windows as whiteboards and clipboards and picnic tables for desks. Liz Teitz-Ouray County Plaindealer

As she read through the state's guidelines for reopening schools during the pandemic, Ridgway Elementary School music teacher Diane Brand tried to imagine what her classes would look like when school resumed.

She tried to picture how her students could play recorders, share drums or learn proper singing techniques, all while wearing a mask and sitting at desks or standing apart from each other. She wondered how she'd build relationships with those students with the new rules and restrictions necessitated by COVID-19.

Ultimately, she couldn't see a way to go forward. Instead of drawing up lesson plans, she wrote a resignation letter, and an emotional email explaining how she'd agonized over the choice.

"I struggled with this decision every day since the beginning of the summer, trying to wrap my head around planning a quality and fun musical experience for students and keeping them safe," Brand said. "Music is social, and they couldn't interact with each other."

The decision wasn't due to concern of catching the virus, Brand said. She trusted Ridgway's efforts to take precautions, and her devout faith precluded any fear for her own health. Faced with the logistics of teaching such an interactive class when interactions are supposed to be limited, retiring seemed like the best option this year, she said.

In Zoom meetings with other school staff and leaders, "I was just sitting there going, 'wow; taking it in and not sure exactly how it was going to look," Brand said. "Shortly after that, I made my decision because of all the things I couldn't do."

Most of Ridgway's teachers returned to in-person classes last week, with masks, altered schedules and outdoor spaces. But the path to reopening included dozens of emails,

Zoom meetings and phone calls to hammer out the logistics of bringing about 400 people back to the campuses.

In emails to and from district staff, which the Plaindealer obtained through an open records request, administrators and teachers strategized about campus requirements, swapped links to articles in scientific journals and newspapers, and solicited comments on draft plans.

In a survey completed in July by 61 district employees, 25 said they were "very comfortable" returning to full-time, in-person work with increased safety protocols. Fifteen respondents said they were "somewhat comfortable;' 14 were "somewhat uncomfortable" and seven "very uncomfortable," though all 61 respondents said they planned to return to work this school year. They were nearly evenly split between the four options when asked about their comfort with teaching and learning being done remotely. All but three said they were willing to assist with "minor cleaning and disinfecting their areas."

After the survey was completed, Superintendent Susan Lacy sought feedback from various teachers on drafts of the "Responsible Reopening Guidelines," before releasing them to the public on Aug. 5ยท

"Ponder what else a parent would need to know before they decide if their student is coming to school this fall and let me know," Lacy wrote in an invitation to edit the document.

Ridgway mandates masks for kindergarten through 12th grade, and recommends them for preschool students. The document notes teachers will work to find times younger students can remove their masks, such as recess or outdoor learning, a decision made after conversations with Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery, Ouray School Superintendent Tod Lokey, Ridgway Elementary Principal Trish Greenwood and some elementary teachers. The district decided against more lenient language allowing students to remove masks inside when working independently and distanced from peers.

"Gosh, this is such a hard question (our world is full of those now, right?)" third grade teacher Christy Sabo replied when Lacy asked her about that decision. "I want to defer to what healthcare and science professionals are saying. I have my opinions but they are possibly more rooted in emotion than fact."

"I think I feel better starting with this requirement," kindergarten teacher Marcia Kinne wrote, after previous conversations indicated masks might not be required at that age. "I felt our faculty and staff would feel best starting with a conservative approach," Lacy replied.

The likeliness of children to transmit the virus was also discussed as the district's guidance was developed.

Middle school teacher Jane Wilson pointed to a July article from the New York Times, which said a South Korean study found that "children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do."

"Thanks for your input. The data on children continues to evolve," Lacy wrote back. "The S. Korea study has had reactions on both sides as well."

Wilson also said students should be prepared to spend "all or most of their time at school outdoors." Each teacher has a designated outdoor space to use for class; some have covered shelters, which were assembled in the days before school started by volunteers and staff.

"I think we should say that we are working on plans for providing outdoor learning spaces, but because all the details aren't worked out yet, I'm not sure we are ready to say that we are going to spend all or most of the day outdoors," Kinne wrote back.

High school teacher Ben Fib be raised numerous questions, including asking about staggered school start times, spacing in classrooms without desks and air purifiers in classrooms.

The district changed air filters in both buildings and purchased air purifiers only for rooms without windows.

Fib be also weighed in later on the mix of online and in-person courses, writing "the closer we get to reopening, the more I think secondary should be (more) online ... there's also a part of me that says we need to give in person a go given how minimally we've been impacted here in Ouray County. Impossible to know."

"I think the relationships built at year start with lots of outside is the right thing," Lacy replied. "I think we will likely evolve to a more hybrid model. Strong training and colleague support with Schoology and online approaches are also key."

Greenwood advised against bussing preschoolers to school this year, to create more space on the buses and eliminate concerns about preschoolers falling asleep while wearing masks, she said.

She also raised concerns abou how temperature checks would be handled before boarding buses.

"If our paras (para professionals) need to ride the buses to do this, I am concerned about the normal duties they would be doing;' she wrote, because they're also needed to do crosswalk duty and help with temperature checks on campus. The updated guidelines call for temperature checks to be done at home before boarding the bus.

Greenwood also suggested emphasizing that staff members will wear masks at all times unless working alone, which sh thought would "be helpful for parents to read;' and explaining why cohorts would be needed and how it could prevent a school-wide shutdown. "I think this last point will really help the parents who are freaked out if school shuts down again," Greenwood wrote. "Knowing we have a plan/strategy to try and prevent/mitigate may help parents choose regular school over the CDLS option."

Ouray County EMS Medical Director Dr. Drew Yeowell also weighed in on the plan, offering feedback on which symptoms students should be screened for and taking questions from teachers in a Zoom meeting.

In the month before classes resumed, Lacy fielded emails from parents with questions about the in-person and online options, mask requirements and other changes. "Time and trust is needed," she wrote back in one reply, explaining that schedules and cohort models were still being developed in late July.

"Can you advise on when we will receive more information on what the blended learning approach will look like? I completely appreciate it is difficult and a moving target of course, but as families are trying to make decisions, at least a timeline would be very helpful," another parent wrote in July. "As it is now just one short month away, I think families are having questions and trying to get their heads wrapped around our options."

"There will be more details by early next week," Lacy replied. "We don't want to provide information that is incorrect so we are taking time to be thoughtful. Many districts informed early and then had to back peddle (sic) and make lots of changes." The district was learning "excellent lessons" from summer school, she added, which didn't start until the last week of July.

Ridgway also postponed registration by a week, out of concern that their guidelines wouldn't be finished and ready in time for the original Aug. 10 registration date. "So much happening and need a little more time to slow it down," Lacy wrote in one email.

In an email on Aug. 13, sent on behalf of Lacy and Personnel Coordinator Jeff Butterbaugh, district staff were told to schedule appointments with Butterbaugh and their supervisor to discuss individual concerns.

"We hope you understand that we cannot run our school district without staff members who are able to work effectively despite the risks and challenges of reopening school during the pandemic," the email said. "Please also understand that we cannot excuse individuals from the essential functions of the job, and in most cases, the essential functions of the job cannot be performed remotely."

Most Ridgway teachers returned, and some praised the reopening efforts and precautions.

"Thank you for this informative and encouraging note," Sabo wrote to Lacy after she emailed parents and staff with initial details about reopening on July 30. "I so appreciate your thorough and thoughtful leadership."

"I think we have done it about as well as possible," Fib be said in an interview before classes resumed. He pointed to the creation of outdoor spaces and the schedule changes to create cohorts as keys in the approach. Instead of teaching English to multiple grades, this semester he has only tenth graders for a combined English and history humanities class, part of the effort to minimize the number of adults each student interacts with daily.

"It really has been a pretty Herculean effort by the Ridgway team to get us to Monday," Fibbe said. Lacy, Greenwood and new secondary principal Russell Randolph "seemingly worked nonstop."

For a few teachers, those precautions weren't enough to sway their decisions to retire, despite what they said were the district's best efforts.

Along with Brand, para professional Norma Tempel also retired, citing the pandemic in her resignation letter. Tempel, 76, who worked with children with autism at the elementary school, said the health risks of catching COVID-19 at her age were too high to return. She consulted her daughter, former Ridgway school nurse Alicia Skoko, who advised against it, she said.

"I don't think they could do anything more," she said of the district's precautions, but at her age, "I needed to not go back."

"It's very sad. I loved my work," Tempel said.

Brand said she now wishes she had requested a yearlong leave of absence, rather than retiring; in the stress of making her decision, she didn't consider it, she said. "It just breaks my heart;' she said.

"The only thing constant is change," Lacy wrote in an email to staff on July 27. "Together we ride the unknown waves of our uncertain future. A kind heart, an open mind and a patient spirit will help us surf with grace."