Parents consider pandemic precautions as school year begins

Back to school will look different this week for Grand County with students wearing face masks at all times when indoors. Families are expected to conduct symptom checks before leaving for school each day.
Amy Golden /

When Ellie St. Germain’s children get home from school, shoes will come off before they step inside, masks will go straight into the washer and the three kids will immediately wash their hands.

For her children in third, fifth and sixth grades, this will be a regular part of the day, just like going through the symptom checklist every morning before leaving for school and wearing a face mask during their classes.

With in-person learning starting Monday for West Grand and Wednesday for East Grand, Grand County Public Health has released revised guidance related to COVID-19 protective measures in schools.

A revised public health order requires that face masks be worn by all children in grades pre-K through 12 in a Grand County school setting with some exceptions.

The public health order concedes that a 6-foot social distance in school settings would be difficult and instead asked that students maintain as much physical distance as possible. Face coverings worn all the time will compensate for the lack of distance.

“We’re very confident with the precautions the schools are taking and very impressed as well,” St. Germain said.

While her family did briefly consider online learning, it was quickly decided that the children would do better with the socialization of their peers and interaction with their teachers.

“Every kid wants a long summer until it gets to the end of summer,” St. Germain said. “It was a really, really long summer. They’re excited to go back to school.”

As for Christy Potter’s fourth grader, she and her husband were on the fence about sending him to school. Her son ended up making the choice.

“It was actually my son, Cameron, who decided that he was just a little too anxious about the whole COVID thing, so he decided he wanted to do school online,” she said.

Both Potter and St. Germain said they’ve been pleased with the response outlined by the schools, especially the use of cohorts to keep students separate in order to contain an outbreak.

If a student or staff member leaves school because of a COVID-19 test, symptoms or exposure, a cohort quarantine guide provided by GCPH lists the response procedure. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the cohort will be dismissed without interacting with others as much as possible and quarantined.

Another guide outlines when an individual can return to school. Students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms should be tested, but the flowchart provides guidance while waiting for test results. GCPH is also working to ensure cost is not a barrier to testing.

St. Germain is a stay-at-home mom, so if there is an outbreak and her children need to quarantine, she’ll be able to take care of them.

Potter’s setup for her son makes sure that he’ll be well supervised throughout the week. She’ll also be supplementing his online learning with the help of some family members.

But for other families, learning from home or quarantining a child for two weeks may be unmanageable.

At Grand Beginnings, the local nonprofit focused on early childhood services and support, this summer has been a testament to the challenges presented by COVID-19 when working with children.

Executive Director Maegan Lokteff explained how working families reliant on childcare have already felt the strain.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the children and families in our county that rely on licensed childcare and children being in school eight hours a day so that they can go to work,” she said.

The childcare in Grand County has already seen some cutbacks. Lokteff explained that because of public health guidance and increased cleaning, available hours have been reduced and these programs are seeing significant financial burdens.

Low wage families that rely on the state’s childcare subsidy cannot use those funds on alternative types of care if the provider is not licensed.

“If no licensed school age care is available they may have to make a very difficult decision between keeping their job and leaving their young elementary students home alone,” Lokteff said.

Public health has cautioned that at least some sections of schools will likely shut down again. They emphasized the need for governments, families and businesses to plan for that situation.

“In-person learning will naturally decrease the social distancing rating of our community as a whole,” public health officials said. “Outbreaks in our community and schools could lead to interruptions in our workforce and have economic consequences.”

The marked difference between the initial shutdown from the virus and one this fall is that employers who closed in the spring might not shut down with schools this time. That could wreak havoc on employees with children and add to the risk of spread.

“The biggest message is that employers are going to need to be patient with working families … and remember their legal obligations to their employees that are impacted by school closures,” Lokteff added.

She hoped that the childcare community in Grand would find a way to meet the needs in these unprecedented times. A lot about how that looks will change, just as schools returning to classes will likely see adjustment.

“There is no right answer in this situation,” Lokteff said. “Health and safety must be protected and public health is right: No matter how hard we try it is not a matter of if this happens but when.”

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