In anticipation of a shift to “red” on the state’s COVID dial system, toward the end of November the Las Animas and Huerfano Counties Public Health Department (LAHCPHD) issued a recommendation letter calling for all schools to shift to remote learning to reduce further spread of COVID-19, which has been spiking in both counties from continued transmissions.
However, the health department left the final call to the districts themselves to make the best decision for their district.
“We made the recommendation to move to remote instruction but we are leaving it up to the schools and those parents within those school districts,” said LAHCPHD Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Rob Bukovac. “There are some school districts that feel that remote isn’t appropriate for them. The one-size-fits-all doesn’t work everywhere however we are making the recommendation just because our case count is so high.”
While the department said students themselves may not be severely affected by the virus, being more akin to a cold they explained, their primary concern was with it being transmitted to family members upon returning home.
“The kids are essentially going to be ok,” said Bukovac. “But if it gets brought home to grandma and grandpa who may have underlying conditions, those are the people that we also need to be concerned about with the schools, the multigenerational families. The ideal situation is if we can keep the schools from being the epicenter of an outbreak that hospitalizes, or god forbid causes fatalities.”
Essentially, the department is hoping to slow down the spread in hopes of dialing back the states currently “severe risk” status.
This all comes on the heels of Governor Jared Polis saying in a press conference on Nov. 24 that “Schools are a reasonably safe place,” and creating the “back-to-school task force.”
“I’ve formed this working group to help us successfully reopen our schools for in-person learning during the pandemic,” said Polis. “I believe that together, we can build upon and develop innovative strategies that assist us in safely reopening schools for all our students.”
But locally, health officials feel that maintaining remote learning means slowing down transmissions.
“If we can slow down the spread by having kids do online school, that’s going to reduce the stress on our hospital,” said Bukovac. “The strategy is also to slow the spread so the state wont bump us back further.”
In hopes to provide a helpful update on what’s going on and what’s to come, The Chronicle-News reached out to several local schools to find out what the general consensus was going forward. Interestingly, it was discovered that each of the three districts to respond had a slightly different experience in regard to moves following the recommendation.
However, what the schools held in common was a difficulty in keeping students engaged, siting drops in regular attendance because of teacher and student remoteness.
Trinidad School District No. 1
At TSD1, Superintendent Dr. Bonnie Aaron said they plan to continue with remote learning, though they had hoped for a hybrid model prior to the local health department’s recommendation letter. This brought a bit of conflict between messages with Governor Polis recently stressing the importance of in-person learning.
“He said all the kids need to be in school,” said Aaron. “When we got approved by the county, it was just basic hybrid learning and since then we’ve added stuff not even required like student and teacher desk shields and air purifiers.”
But with teachers and students uncomfortable with coming to school and the recommendation from the health department because of the increase in positive COVID cases, the district has been forced to go the other direction despite previous progress.
“We had kids coming in, not in a hybrid format but for special education and students who were failing or high-risk,” Aaron explained, “but now that the teachers are home and the kids are home, we’ve digressed in our trajectory to get everybody back in school.”
With the department recommending remote learning until at least Jan. 15, Aaron expressed that it is her hope, with the board’s blessing, to go to remote learning at that point, though nothing solid has been decided.
“We have several board members that would prefer that we be in school,” said Aaron. “But until the teachers are comfortable coming in, which the shields and air purifiers were their demands, then there’s not much we can do. So we have to work on that.”
Regardless of teacher’s hesitation to return, Aaron explained that most would agree that remote learning has brought about difficulties in keeping kids engaged online and something needed to be done.
“The kids are disconnecting,” said Aaron. “A lot of them are failing. There are some concerns that we’re just losing those kids. They’re either staying home and doing homeschool or neighborhood pods where they’re creating their own little groups and who knows what curriculum their using.”
Losing kids also means a big hit to an already struggling district with Aaron approximating a $127,000 loss in state funding.
Primero Superintendent Bill Naccarato said they would be continuing hybrid in-person for sixth through 12th grades and in-person every day for Kindergarten through fifth grade.
“The parents were involved in our board meeting and brought up studies saying the safest place for kids was in school, not out of school,” said Naccarato. “There were approximately 86 people on that call. But the health department told us that the students could be asymptomatic and bring it home to the older grandparents.”
To best serve their students and keep the school open, Primero will continue the protocols they’ve had in place since the start of the semester, with a high rate of sanitization such as cleaning bathrooms at least once an hour if not more, Naccarato explained. So far the cleaning must be paying off as the school has been fortunate enough to not have any incidents of positive COVID-19 cases as of Dec. 2.
“We sanitize in depth early in the morning and before everybody leaves,” said Naccarato. “All our staff and everyone riding the bus also wears a mask.”
He also stated that students in sixth through 12th grade did have the choice to go strictly to online learning if they so desired and added that teachers have been good at following up on remote learning students to keep them on track.
“Our staff have really rolled up their sleeves and gone after it,” said Naccarato. “When you have students not in school, you’re going to have a bit of a drop off from students but we’ve been doing a really good job not allowing too much of a drop.”
Following the holiday break, Naccarato said they would return to the same system as this semester.
GOAL Academy in Trinidad has continued to operate remotely with students coming in by appointment only. Communication Coordinator Gunnison Pagnotta explained because of the number of counties their school had to keep up with being scattered throughout the state, they have adhered to a fairly consistent remote plan across the board.
“Because we have our 36 sites all over the state, we’re operating on a lot of different county health departments,” said GOAL’s Communication Coordinator Gunnison Pagnotta, “so we’ve just gone ahead as a result of the most recent spike and shifted to what we call skeleton crews.”
The Trinidad campus location had already been split into a blue team and green team for teaching and administration staff Pagnotta explained but going to the skeleton crew took that down to one or two administration staff on site at a time to assist students and conduct mandatory testing by appointment. Teachers and academic coaches have been operating remotely
Pagnotta added that they continue to make themselves available by appointment should a student be having technology difficulties such as faulty computers, in which case those students can have it exchanged for a working one and have student support kits that can be given out.
“Those are broken down into four categories,” said Pagnotta. “One is warmth such as coats, beanies, scarfs, or gloves. Then there’s a tech support kit such as boosters for hot spots or have their laptop replaced if it’s on the fritz. The third is a food kit we provide and the fourth is hygiene products like soap, shampoo, etc.”