Staying close to home

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Parents cite uncertainty with virus in choosing school alternatives

  • Anna Countryman works on schoolwork at home through the Colorado Digital Learning Solutions on line platform. She and her two older siblings are enrolled in virtual classes this year, while her two younger siblings started in-person classes at Ridgway Elementary School last week. Both Ridgway and Ouray School districts are offering in-person and on line options for families this fall. Liz Teitz - Ouray County Plaindealer
    Anna Countryman works on schoolwork at home through the Colorado Digital Learning Solutions on line platform. She and her two older siblings are enrolled in virtual classes this year, while her two younger siblings started in-person classes at Ridgway Elementary School last week. Both Ridgway and Ouray School districts are offering in-person and on line options for families this fall. Liz Teitz - Ouray County Plaindealer
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Faced with the choice between online classes and returning to campus this fall, John Countryman and his family decided to choose both.

His three oldest children will take classes at home through Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, the state-supported virtual school, while his two younger children returned to class at Ridgway Elementary School last week.

He praised the flexibility provided by the district and the precautions put in place over the summer, which he said allowed the family to make the best decision for each of his children.

"My older kids, my sixth, eighth and ninth grader, just are better able to self-direct and, I think, absorb material online, much more so than my second and fourth grader,'' Countryman said. The decision came down to "trying to find the most consistent platform to learn with the least disruptions, and balancing that with the kids in where they are in their learning path."

Parents around the county have faced the same choices this semester. Kids could return to in-person classes in Ridgway or Ouray, with masks, social distancing and other changes to mitigate risks, with the knowledge that they might have to return to online learning if there's an outbreak. They could also opt for virtual classes through CDLS, taught online by teachers outside the district but remaining enrolled locally. Others opted out and sought out their own homeschool curricula for the year.

Risk, consistency and the unusual constraints of the new school year were factors parents cited in their decisions to stay home, as well as their own ability to work from home or supervise their children.

About 13 percent of Ridgway students opted for the CDLS option, with 21 elementary and 22 secondary students choosing that option, Lacy said in a report to the school board last week. There were 332 students enrolled in the district, in-person and through CDLS, she said, including 32 new students. Ridgway had 330 students enrolled last year.

In Ouray, only six students chose the CDLS option, Superintendent Tod Lokey said. Overall enrollment in the district is up by about 20 students from last year, with a total of 186 students this year.

Countryman said he expects his children who went back to school last week will likely return to virtual learning at some point during the school year. Despite Ridgway School District's best efforts, there are still uncontrollable factors outside the school environment that could lead to cases or an outbreak forcing the school to shutter, he said.

If that happens, his older children will have no interruption in their online classes, he said.

"The risk we were balancing is: what do our kids miss for the benefit of eliminating that COVID risk?" he said. "For the little kids, there was too much learning given up for that smaller risk. For the older kids, they didn't need to be exposed to it because their learning plan will be better met because it won't be interrupted."

Consistency was also a factor for Taryn Lee, whose son started first grade online through CDLS, instead of in-person at Ouray School.

"Our main reason is not even out of fear of the virus or COVID itself, but more of the school shutting down again like we did in March and then being left with what happens now," she said. "Young kids, mine especially, need serious structure and schedule and when school shut down in March, we really struggled with scheduling and just routine." Knowing from the start that school will be virtual this year eliminates the challenge of changing situations later on, she said.

It also minimizes the need for social distancing, which she said her son would have a hard time doing. At that age, "it's so hard to make them understand that they can't be in each other's spaces," she said. "When I asked my son, 'Can you stay out of your friends' space?' he said, 'No, I kind of have a problem with that,' " she said.

The restrictions in the school setting were also a factor for Athena Laubacher, who didn't want her son to have a negative preschool experience.

"I really don't want him to hate school," she said, but she worried the restrictions this year might cause more harm than good.

The limits seem impractical at his age, she said. "Asking preschoolers not to share and to wear masks kind of defeats the purpose of preschool." She worried teachers wouldn't be able to comfort students as much if they're supposed to be limiting contact, too.

Preschool isn't offered through the state's online system, so Laubacher purchased her own homeschool curriculum for the year, which includes worksheets and crafts focused on basics like letter recognition, colors and shapes.

Her son will still go to the school building once a week for speech therapy. She credited the Uncompahgre Board of Cooperative Educational Services with fighting for that, because the school originally wasn't going to provide the service for preschoolers who aren't in class on campus, she said.

The decision also allows her family to continue interacting with grandparents more comfortably without fear of bringing home COVID-19 from school, she said.

"When we were all quarantined, we didn't see our extended family for two months," Laubacher said. "Now, we're able to see their grandparents again. The last thing I would want to do is have that jeopardized."

Lee and Stephanie Lauerman, whose daughter will take on line classes instead of attending school in Ridgway, both said they know other parents who can't choose that option because they're not able to be at home with their kids during the day. By removing their children from the classroom, they hope there will be a bit more space to spread out and one fewer student to spread the virus.

Lauerman works from home and her daughter is a good self-paced learner, she said, "so situationally we felt that we could manage it well ."

"Ultimately, I think the most likelihood to succeed for the school district, the fewer kids they have to navigate, the better," she said. "There's a lot of families that don't have the luxury of making a choice, they need their kids to be in school, so we felt it was supporting the community to allow those kids those places that priority:'

Like Countryman, the consistency of the online program was the main factor behind the decision. Lauerman's daughter, Eleni Wallin, will also have access to other classes through CDLS that she wouldn't be able to take on campus, an added benefit of the online option.

"There's a much greater variety of electives she can choose from, so that's appealing," Lauerman said. "She's taking a class in forensic science, the science of crime. Ridgway just doesn't have the ability to offer that, so the opportunities are going to be expanded a little bit."

If Ridgway had offered a hybrid option, as some districts are with students alternating between in-person and virtual classes, she likely would have chosen that, Lauerman said.

"They would have an opportunity to have some in-person interaction, but not to the degree of all day, every day," she said. If students got sick or needed to isolate because of a sick family member, that option might have provided more flexibility than the school's current plan for in-person classes, she said.

Laubacher was also wary of having her son repeatedly tested, especially with the frequency of coughs and colds in preschool classes. "They're sick all the time anyway, and the common cold has so many similarities with COVID (symptoms)," she said. She recently tested negative after having similar symptoms, and said she couldn't picture having him go through that often during the school year. "The last thing I could imagine was having to hold down my almost-5-year-old to be tested,'' she said.

While both Ouray and Ridgway have offered students the ability to switch between in-person and online at the end of the first quarter or semester, Countryma is expecting that his students will remain in their situations for the rest of the year. "The plan is to return our kids to school, all five, in the fall of 2021," he said.

Other families haven't made up their mind beyond the initial commitment.

"We did what felt best for us right now," Lauerman said. "We're also super open that this might just be a one-semester decision and then she'll be back in the classroom."

"We told him, if you don't like or we don't like it, we can change at Christmas time,'' Lee said. "We haven't made a decision either way, we're going to see how it goes, not only the homeschooling itself but also just the outbreaks, the cases, the success of the school itself in these circumstances."