East Grand schools ease toward reopening with flexibility in mind
With classes starting in just weeks, East Grand School District continues to navigate the murky waters of schooling in a pandemic.
After East and West Grand school districts announced their reopening plans July 15, parents and teachers had a lot of questions and gave extensive feedback.
East Grand Superintendent Frank Reeves explained in a Tuesday update to the Board of Education that he continues to meet regularly with Grand County Public Health along with school staff, faculty and parents to answer the ever-growing list of questions.
When school starts Aug. 26-27, face masks will be required. If a student refuses to wear a mask, Reeves explained that he or she would not go to class.
“They go home,” he said. “I really hate to say no tolerance, but we have to have that.”
Reeves made it clear that face masks are going to be required except when students are outside and socially distanced. Schools are looking at ways to implement “mask breaks” so that students get a chance to breathe some fresh air throughout the day.
Other precautions include reducing student exposure during lunchtimes, passing periods and when students enter or exit the school. Even as the plans are fleshed out, Reeves expects them to change.
“The safety protocols that we already have in place, and the ones that we will continue to have in place, I see morphing and changing even into the first weeks of school,” he said.
Some districts in Colorado will be opening to in-person learning this coming week, and Reeves anticipates additional guidance based on how positively or negatively those attempts go.
State officials are pushing at every grade level for cohorts, which keep students within the same group of peers throughout the day. How each school approaches cohorts will vary.
At the youngest level, Fraser Valley Elementary Principal James Chamberlin said that cohorts would be kept small.
“We’re going to be really tight about that at the elementary [level] because we can,” he said.
As students get older, cohorts become more challenging. East Grand Middle School Principal Jenny Rothboek said the school day would be as “normal” as possible with the regular eight-period day, but that lunches would be staggered by grade level to keep students in their cohorts.
At Middle Park High School, where grade level mingling is fairly common, cohorts present the biggest challenge. That’s why the high school is seeing some significant changes.
“To limit transition times, to limit their contact with others and to reduce time in the halls, we’re changing our schedule at the high school and a couple of other things,” Principal Cindy Rimmer said.
The high school will have a block schedule this year, extending the previously 55-minute classes to four 100-minute classes. Because of the extended time, a quarter-long class this year will equal a semester of credit.
The high school will not be allowing open campus lunches at the direction of GCPH. Rimmer said this would be reevaluated after a couple weeks.
“The thought of taking … all these safety protocols and then letting the kids leave and come back in 30 minutes, it’s just not the safest thing for our students or staff,” she explained. “During those hours between 8 and 4, that is the time we’re promising parents we’re doing our best to keep their kids safe.”
Reeves said discussions continue about the effectiveness of cohorts in general, pointing out that even if students are separated during school hours that it may not control an outbreak.
“We can control their cohorts in school,” he said. “But our kids mix … outside of school.”
Of course, not all students are choosing to return to in-person learning. East Grand gave families the option to go fully digital while remaining enrolled in the district.
Reeves said roughly 20% of students are choosing to go online either with the district-provided Colorado Digital Learning Solutions or another homeschooling option. At the same time, Reeves said the district is seeing a surge in new student enrollment.
“What we talked about happening over the next three years is happening right now,” he said of the growth.
The question remains how many students have left East Grand since the pandemic began. Reeves said that the district would be making phone calls this week to gauge enrollment.
The schools are also working to create flexibility between in-person and online learning in case schools are shut down again or a student tests positive for COVID-19. If a student catches the virus, their entire cohort is required to quarantine for two weeks according to current guidelines.
Some school districts in the state have elected to move fully online, especially the larger districts on the Front Range. There has also been nationwide backlash from teachers against in-person learning, but Reeves said that’s not the case at East Grand.
“When you’re hearing that national narrative, we’re not seeing that,” he said. “We’re seeing people that are obviously concerned but want to make it work and want to make it as safe as possible.”
He added that staff had been asking hard but important questions, helping the schools to be more prepared. Principals said they had heard a similarly positive if cautious response from teachers.
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