Schools develop preliminary plan for reopening

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Ridgway and Ouray schools both plan on providing in-person instruction to students this fall, but parents have other options if they’re not comfortable sending their students back to the classroom.

New state education guidelines released this week have given the districts a framework for their return to studies, and have answered one of the most prevalent questions on people’s minds whether masks will be required for students and teachers.

Ridgway Superintendent Susan Lacy sent out an email last week to inform parents of a plan to move forward with in-per son instruction as originally scheduled on Aug. 31. Ridgway Schools is partnering with Colorado Empowered Learning, a state-supported online learning program, for parents who would rather keep their children out of the rlaqsroom. CEL instruction will be done totally at home with the help of Colorado certified teachers.

The CEL program is funded by the state, though students are still enrolled in the district. This allows school districts to retain some of the funding for these students. Students who sign up for the online program need to commit to learning online for the whole semester but could later switch to the regular classroom.

Ridgway classroom teachers will not be tasked with overseeing the online program, as they will be teaching in-person at school. The state will staff the program with certified teach-ers, and local classroom teachers will be able to solely focus on the students in their brick and mortar classrooms. If school were to shut down due to a spike in COVID-19 cases or state mandate, students enrolled in the regular rlaqsroom would not be switched to the CEL program, but would remain in a virtual program led by their rlaqsroom teacher, just as they did when school buildings closed March 16.

If schools shut down this fall, Lacy said she doesn’t expect students and teachers to be completely blocked from the rlaqsroom. With knowledge acquired over the last several months, she believes students could safely come into the building for tutoring sessions, for example.

With Ridgway’s rural setting, smaller class sizes and access to outdoor learning venues, there is more flexibility to develop safe options than some larger, urban districts have. Lacy said she’s optimistic about meeting safety guidelines without staggering schedules as some larger districts are planning to do.

“I think we can pull off Monday through Friday,” Lacy said.

Lacy expects to have more specific plans next month. She realizes many parents are waiting to hear details before making the decision on whether or not to send their children to the classroom and likewise, she needs the hard numbers on the amount of students returning to the classroom to arrange for spacing guidelines.

In June, Ridgway parents were surveyed about having students return to classrooms for in-person learning. At the time, 66 percent of the parents who responded indicated they were in favor of full-time, in-person learning.

CDE guidelines

Per the Colorado Department of Education guidelines, just released this week, masks will be mandatory for students over u and recommended for younger children. Ridgway has also ordered some face shields for teachers and will experiment with those during summer school in early August.

The goals of the CDE guidelines include maximizing in-person learning, minimizing disruptions in education and ensuring equity in educational opportunities in the most safe and healthy way possible. The department cited recent studies showing younger children are less likely to transmit the disease to each other and to adults than older children. The department also said COVID-19 risks are likely less than the influenza, and they’re more worried about older children and adults transmitting the virus.

“There likely is minimal benefit relative to the great difficulty of physical distancing young children within a class to prevent COVID-19 spread,” the CDE guidelines stated. The department also cited concerns about the impacts of distancing younger children and a negative effect on their learning and development.

Secondary students will have to adhere to stricter guidelines as their risks related to COVID-19 are higher and the depart-ment believes they have a higher likelihood of transmitting the virus.

One way to limit potential spread of the virus will be to organize smaller groups of students, which the department calls “cohorting,” when distancing is not feasible. If one student from a group gets sick, the school can quarantine that student’s group rather than shutting down the whole school.

“Cohorting is the most important strategy to keep schools open,” according to the CDE.

Parent perspective

Whether or not they would be sending their children back to school in the traditional sense, parents expressed gratitude that they have the choice between sending them to school or using the online program at home.

John Countryman, father of five Ridgway students, was the first to mention COVID-19 concerns to the school board back in February when he asked them to get ahead of the coming problem.

After seeing the district’s handling of the situation over the last several months, Countryman said he felt, “confident that we have leadership that is trying to make thoughtful and informative decisions.”

Countryman said though his plans are to send his children back to school, he appreciates the choice.

Dina Gaspari, mother of two Ridgway elementary students, is opting for the at-home learning model, though she said her family’s thoughts on the matter are changing “day-by-day” as the situation evolves and more information is available.

“We’re very grateful that it’s giving people options. We know that some kids really need the support of the school because their parents may not have the option of flexible hours or staggered hauls,” she said. “We want the kids to be able to go to school who need to be able to go to school, but if we have the option to stagger or use flexible hours we should take advantage of that so there are fewer kids in the classroom at one time.”

Parent Maurice Huffman said getting things back to normal is best for children and will send his fourth grader back to school. He hopes that social distancing guidelines will not restrict recess and confine students to their classrooms.

Some parents found it concerning that they could send their children back to school only to have it possibly shut down again, putting them into the same situation as last spring and are opting to start off learning at home to ensure consistency.

Other parents are opting to go their own way and homeschool their children. Ridgway moth-er of two Mae Collier said she is going in with other families to purchase an “Earth-based,” outdoor-focused curriculum to provide learning fora “small pod homeschool” of four to eight children.

Teacher perspective

Ridgway fourth grade teacher and father Mike Cassidy feels torn and anxious about returning to school.

“I really want to go back to school. I love the work I do,” said the 15-year veteran teacher who also wants his daughter to have the opportunity to experience a traditional kindergarten year. “But all these wants I have are selfish and in a lot of ways completely unreasonable. Everybody wants to go back to school but we are going to do it at a cost to kids’ health and teachers’ health.”

Though he expressed concerns for students and teachers nationwide over a lack of funding for safety measures such as personal protective equipment, testing and contact tracing Cassidy said he hoped Ridgway’s focus on outdoor learning would mitigate some risks until cold weather comes in November.

Kelly Sampson, Ridgway first grade teacher, told the Plaindealer via email that she is ready to teach her students in person.

“I always want to make decisions with the idea of doing what is best for kids coming fust. What I truly believe is best for kids is to head back to school and interact with their friends and faculty safely,” Sampson said.

New Ouray Schools Superintendent Tod Lokey said decisions related to the state’s latest guidance haven’t been made yet for students in his district. “Ouray has had conceptual plans for opening and is engaging staff in committee work for the health, safety and learning structures of our school,” he said. He and K-8 Principal Kenneth Nelson will be working on “draft plans” this week and next.

“I sincerely believe that being with my students and interacting with them in a personal way each and everyday is by far the best thing for not only their academics but also their social-emotional health,” said Ouray teacher Jenny Hart. “I understand we need to be flexible and offer choices for parents who opt out of in-person learning, but I really believe in the power of that personal in-person connection. I am hoping fervently that Ouray School is up to the challenge of in-person learning in the next month and that we can be really creative about keeping our children safe while providing an excellent education and also fostering mental health and their social connection.”

Reporter Liz Teitz contributed to this report.