—Ed. Note: This is part two of a continuing series on how Aguilar Schools is managing physically, academically and socially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

School days — a time synonymous with playing Friday night football games, crowning homecoming queens, going to high school dances, and celebrating May graduations.

But COVID-19 leaves nothing untouched. As schools have had to adjust to meet students’ academic needs through increased social distancing, hybrid schedules, and online instruction, so too have they had to deal with restrictions that make participating in athletics and extracurricular activities difficult at best.

The Aguilar School District, as a case in point, has had to scrap some activities and adjust others during the COVID-19 pandemic, at all times trying to accommodate state and local restrictions while still providing the best opportunities possible for students.

The impact to sports and extracurriculars was felt the hardest in the spring of 2020, when the state mandated the complete shutdown of in-person learning and the cancellation of the spring sports season. “When everything shut down, we were at the start of track season: meets had been scheduled and coaches hired,” said Elizabeth Jameson, Aguilar Junior/High School Principal. “After the shutdown, we couldn’t do anything in the spring.”

The cancellation of the spring sports season was keenly felt by students such as 14-year-old Marianna DeLaCruz. “When the season closure began, what affected me most was not being able to have my first year of track,” said DeLaCruz. “I was excited to be able to begin a new year of sports, but then COVID hit so fast and everything was shut down.”

The cancellations extended beyond athletics. “As far as extracurricular programs, we didn’t do any,” said Jameson. “FFA usually happens in the spring with competition at district and state level, and that didn’t happen, either. Anything that was planned after March 12 was essentially erased.”

“Our students were short-changed on the ‘fun’ things. Prom was cancelled, the yearbook was left in limbo; as a yearbook sponsor, I had to go back in and add photos from previous photo libraries on my computer to finish the book. There was no NHS (National Honor Society) induction ceremony because that usually happens in early May.”

After school programs, provided in large part through Aguilar’s participation in the 21st Century Community learning Grant program, were also cancelled in the spring. “One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the disappointment of being unable to offer guitar lessons,” said Mileene Sanchez, Aguilar’s director of the 21st CCLG program. “We had just received our order of new guitars the week of March 9. Several students were interested and had signed up for lessons, but that was the last week of in-person learning, as the COVID closure began that following week. So, we have these brand-new guitars that have been sitting untouched so far. Do we explore the possibility of finding someone willing to teach remotely? Would kids even be interested in learning guitar over a Zoom or Google meet? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been asking myself.”

One spring rite of passage, however, the Aguilar School District was able to preserve: graduation in May. “I am proud to say that last year, we were one of the few high schools to go on with graduation on the regular date. We had an outside ceremony - the students were on the football field, and only immediate families were there, in their vehicles lining the outside of the field. We had an announcer and handed out diplomas and scholarship information neatly covered in secured plastic bags to students. It was something that I felt the graduating seniors needed and deserved,” said Jameson.

Aguilar staff also provided meals to students during the spring closures. “It was a challenge at first, but because we have such an amazing staff who are always willing to lend a hand, we were able to prepare and distribute meals to all of our students,” said Vanessa Vezzani, Food Service Director and Head Cook for Aguilar Schools.

As life slowly started to get back to ‘normal’ during the summer, Aguilar was able to offer a modified summer school program under the umbrella of the 21st CCLG program. “We were able to provide four weeks of in-person summer school academic enrichment,” said Sanchez. “We submitted a plan that was approved by the health department. We limited the classes to 7-9 students, wore masks, and practiced social distancing. However, we were unable to do activities such as swimming, bowling, and skating like we did in the summer of 2019.”

Sports camps and tournaments were put on hold over the summer in Aguilar as well. “My mom always holds a volleyball tournament in Aguilar, but we didn’t get to do it,” said thirteen-year-old student athlete Jayden Baudino. “We usually have two or three volleyball tournaments over the summer that we didn’t get to do. We also usually go to volleyball camps at Adams State, but those were closed, too. I was pretty sad because for the tournaments I’d gotten my team together, but I understand cancelling them, because if we had gone through with them, it would have been pretty high risk.”

While the Aguilar School District was able to return to in-person and hybrid class sessions this fall, the return has been far from normal. “Sports are something that have really been impacted,” said Jameson. “We combined to play football with La Veta. Students were able to travel to play but were required to wear masks. Players on the sideline wore masks, and only a certain number of family members were able to watch the games. We were unable to have concessions stands, cheerleaders, or band at any athletic events. At the games, we took temperatures and anyone who tested ‘hot,’ 100 degrees or above, was asked to go home.”  

Aguilar has had to make numerous adjustments to co-curricular and extracurricular activities this fall as well. “A lot of our ‘fun’ classes have been put to the side,” said Jameson, “as we are concentrating on English, math, science, and our FFA/Ag classes. We lost the shop teacher during all this, and haven’t replaced him yet, but that is in the works. Students need to have more than the core classes to keep them engaged in learning, and basically, we haven’t been able to do that this year.”

“One loss that our students felt was in regard to our Computer Science class,” said Jameson. “Every year, our students go to Denver and visit Microsoft; we purchase the materials, and the students working with a tech from Microsoft build a computer that we then raffle off. This year, our students were unable to do that, and had to have the parts shipped to the school. We will still be able to build the computer in class with Micah Wheeler, but the experience of seeing the Microsoft plant and visiting with the technician is lost on this class.”

“It is those experiences that I wish I could still provide for the students. They need to have those hands-on experiences with the business world in order to fully understand what they want to do in life,” said Jameson. “Many of the computer science students want to do that for a career and needed that visit to happen this year.”  

Sanchez has had to make adjustments to the after-school programs offered through the 21st CCLG this fall as well: “Our school district has implemented cohorts of students to minimize exposure and any quarantine situations should they become necessary. The cohorts are grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Since the students are not interacting outside of their cohorts during the school day, we are doing the same thing after school. All cohorts are offered after school programming twice a week, and the schedule is set up, so the cohorts are not in the building after school at the same time. This is a big change from our first two years when we offered programming to all students every day.”

While after school programs have faced challenges this year, they are still incredibly popular with students. “I have been extremely pleased with the attendance of the grade 3-5 cohort,” said Sanchez. “There are some kids in this cohort who come both days that CLC/Afterschool is offered to them. It’s rewarding to see these students keep coming and just enjoy being at school — for two extra hours after their regular day has ended!”

Some traditions have been essentially set aside this year. “I feel bad that homecoming, a time of year that both staff and students look forward to, looked really different this year. No dance, no parade, no royalty - everything that is exciting for students was cancelled,” Jameson said.

Producing the yearbook this year is also proving to be a challenge. “As the staff and I started the planning pages, we realized - would we have those traditional events that are the staple of the yearbook?”

“We have no students hanging around in the hall to take photos of, no sporting events group photos, and even the school picture day as we know it in the past has been cancelled. We are in the process of using a staff member and to take photos for parents and the yearbook, but our normal day-to-day operations do not look at all like past years,” said Jameson.  

Even small social gatherings, such as mealtimes, are limited this year for students. “Our lunchroom is non-existent for middle school and high school,” said Jameson. “Previously, students would eat together, and we had foosball and table tennis for them; but now, those games had to be put away. Middle school students are given a meal as they exit at noon to go home for virtual learning. High school students receive a meal as they enter the building, but they take the meal to their first hour class and eat in the classroom. The lunch interaction as we knew it before is non-existent.”

While the district has been successful in ensuring that all students receive two healthy meals per day, it hasn’t been without its obstacles. “The biggest challenge I’ve really faced due to COVID-19 were budget cuts,” said Food Service Director Vezzanni.

In short — COVID-19 has radically changed how schools approach athletics and extracurricular activities.

On December 7, Aguilar schools transitioned to virtual learning for the remainder of the fall semester due to rising Covid-19 cases in the community. Once again, athletics and in-person learning, and activities have been put on hold. But the school is resilient. “COVID sure has been hectic and life-changing, but it has taught me to be a better person, and I’m thankful,” said DeLaCruz. “Even though this was a pandemic change, change is always good for something. It hasn’t been the best year, but we made it through. Hopefully, 2021 treats us better.”

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