Schools close for weeks, pivot with ever-changing situation

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Citing concerns about preventing community spread of coronavirus, Ridgway and Ouray Schools initially closed until April 6, but then the closure was extended with the governor's order that all schools close until April 17, announced Wednesday night.

Rapidly evolving recommendations from public health officials, a lack of virus testing resources and decisions from surrounding communities contributed to a quick series of decisions to close schools.

Initially, officials planned on closing both Ridgway and Ouray districts for one day, for deep cleaning and staff inservice. State and local health officials’ protocol for schools closing at the time was related to identifying positive cases of coronavirus - which Ouray County didn’t have.

But the strategy to protect the community from a virus - which can remain undetected in seemingly healthy individuals - changed from making decisions based on confirmed cases when leaders realized testing was largely unavailable to those in Ouray County, and were also scarce in the region. So, just because there were no positive test results didn’t necessarily mean there weren’t any cases of the virus here, school officials reasoned.

On March 12, Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery advised the Ridgway School Board of the state’s protocol on closures, which included closing for 72 hours in the event of one case of COVID-19 within the school and for 14 days in the event of two cases. With zero confirmed cases in the county and the closest cases confirmed in Gunnison County, Lacy made the decision to close for one day - March i6 - after consulting with School Board President Greg Lawler.

In making the choice, Lacy cited the lack of available testing and decisions from neighboring school districts to close, and said she couldn’t wait for health officials to make the call because, “By the time we have a case in school, it’s too late.”

Lawler said he had angry parents confront him on Friday when Lacy first announced Monday’s closure with the possibility of an extension through spring break. But two days later, he heard from parents who expressed gratitude for the proactive approach.

In an email sent to parents March 13, Lacy said the goal of closing schools was to keep the county’s cases of COVID-i9 at zero. She said the district would re-evaluate the situation during spring break to determine if classes will resume on April 7.

Lacy said she and Kenneth Nelson, the acting administrator of Ouray School District, organized a phone conference with local officials on Sunday “when no clear decision was made at the state level.” She said she received Kingery’s support for the extended closure during that meeting.

Lacy said the current plan is for teachers to set up eight days of daily learning plans for students to complete at home. Teachers will be reaching out to parents and students and will be “completely flexible to accommodate what we know will be challenges with family schedules.” The districts both offered families the chance to check out Chromebook laptops from schools for at-home learning during the closure.

Nelson said he worked closely with Lacy on coordinating closure. He said Ouray elementary students are being provided with Chromebooks and takehome work and middle school and high school students have online assignments from their individual teachers. Teachers will also have office hours for video conferencing with students who have questions.

When discussing a potential future closure at last week’s Ridgway School Board meeting, board members expressed concerns over children who rely on meals provided at school and parents who rely on the school for childcare. Teacher Mike Cassidy also said he was concerned about lack of available Internet for some and computer access among students for any at-home learning programs the schools might set up.

While both the Ouray and Ridgway public libraries were open for Internet usage, they decided to close their doors due to virus spread precautions this week.

Ouray Public Library, with help from Artisan Bakery & Cafe, is providing lunch on weekdays through April 3, which could be revised based on school closures. The program is similar to the Lunch at the Library program the library launched last summer. Funding for the program is from a grant from the Telluride Foundation. Ouray School has also donated perishable items including fruits and vegetables.

Lunch will be served curbside at the bakery and can be requested by emailing ouraypl@gmail.com or calling 970-325-4677.

The school closures have presented a challenge for parents who need childcare in order to work, or have been instructed to work at home to maintain a safe distance from others or have workplaces that have closed to avoid community spread of the virus.

All Weehawken, Sherbino and Wright Opera House programs are canceled at this time. Voyager Youth Program has also suspended operations through April 6. Programs Manager Danelle Hughes Norman sent an email to participating families telling them she could provide them with a list of teens willing to babysit at their request.

Norman said the list included five individuals from Ridgway and Ouray offering to babysit, she said but no parents had requested the information as of March 17.

“I am assuming parents are self-quarantined with their children, providing an excellent time to enjoy time together and have authentic conversations with each other,” Norman said.

Ridgway School Counselor Sharon Brown also sent an email to parents on Wednesday, reminding them she’s still available during school hours for counseling services for students and their families.

Brown advised parents to contact her during school hours or to contact the Center for Mental Health Crisis Walk-in Center 24-7, at 300 N. Cascade Ave. in Montrose or to call them at 970-232-6220.

*Editor's note: This story has been update to reflect that the governor's office ordered schools to close until April 17 at this time. This announcement came after our newspaper went to print this week.