Eagle County Schools passes reopening plan, moves start date to Aug. 25

Superintendent Philip Qualman presents a slide deck to board members at Wednesday night's special meeting that ended with a vote on a reopening plan.

If public schools started this week in Eagle County, all learning would be remote. Superintendent Philip Qualman made that somber declaration at Wednesday night’s virtual district board meeting in which the six board members voted unanimously to push the academic year’s start date back a week to Aug. 25 and to pass a reopening plan that includes a hybrid system of in-person and remote instruction.

Qualman stressed that local schools are a reflection of their communities, and stated that Eagle County has serious work to do to get students and teachers back in classrooms.

“We have five weeks to fix this,” Qualman said. “We have to do all we can to push that needle back down in the yellow zone. Don’t have your block party barbecue. Do your birthday virtually. I’ve seen it in my own family and I’ve seen it in my neighborhood. I would love to go hang out. But we have an obligation as a district to get these students back on track.”

He added: “We’ve got to get schools open.”

With local COVID-19 cases surging and testing lagging statewide and nationally, public health officials moved the county into the “concerned” zone earlier this week — the highest level of risk, according to key performance indicators.

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If schools were currently in session, such a move would trigger a district-wide shift to remote learning. The only other factor in the new reopening plan that would trigger such a move is if the district can’t adequately staff classrooms because of too few employees — a serious possibility, Qualman noted, as it tries to navigate in-person learning during a pandemic.

A plan with options

If there’s one overarching theme to the plan that board members passed on Wednesday night after months of meetings and community feedback, it’s flexibility.

It’s one plan, but it comes with three options that provide maneuverability for educators based on what’s happening in the community health-wise.

“We can’t predict the future, so to say we’re going to open in a certain model is disrespectful to the community,” Qualman said. “It gives them hope around some concept that will likely change.”

To keep students consistently engaged, district officials have devised a system that allows students and teachers to return to classrooms while being prepared to shift to remote learning if and when COVID-19 cases trigger quarantines.

That plan includes a four-day week of in-class learning for students at the elementary and middle school levels, as well as Red Canyon High School students. Wednesdays would be teacher planning days.

For the district’s three other high schools — Battle Mountain, Eagle Valley and Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy — students will operate on an A/B schedule of two days in class and two days of remote learning with teachers also getting a planning day. Each high school grade would be segmented into two groups, based on last names, with one group attending in-person classes on Mondays and Thursdays and the other group attending on Tuesdays and Fridays.

At the high school level, the emphasis on classroom days will be on maximizing teacher-student interaction for things like labs and class discussions and helping students overcome the challenges they can’t navigate at home.

Qualman called the remote days a “flipped classroom that needs buy-in from students and parents to work. On the days the students are not in the classroom, they’ll be tasked with doing research and completing assignments.

There are also fully-remote options for parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their children back into schools. Parents can enroll their children in remote learning supported by their neighborhood school to maintain teacher and classmate relationships or select World Academy, which is an entirely online, self-paced platform with limited, but local, teacher support. Neighborhood schools will have additional information available closer to the start of the school year regarding their online options.

Since being forced into remote learning in mid-March when stay-at-home orders shuttered local schools, local educators have learned a lot about how to improve remote learning. In its release following Wednesday’s board vote, the district said remote learning will function more similarly to a traditional school, with schedules, synchronous learning, more student accountability, and more teacher communication.

That’s the basic outline. As for the details specific to each individual school, Qualman said principals and staff will sort them out since they know their schools best while the district offers support and advice.

Cohorts and quarantines

To attempt to get through a school year of in-person instruction with minimal disruptions, the plan creates segmented groups within schools to limit widespread transmission when COVID-19 cases emerge. Each school will have an array of segmented groups called cohorts.

In the elementary schools, class sizes will shrink from around 25 to 12-13 students in a model that Qualman said would be similar to a one-room schoolhouse.

“It increases distancing, and there will be a strong emphasis on relationships with teachers, and consistent education,” Qualman said. “That’s going to really allow teachers to build stronger relationships.”

To shrink those cohort sizes, schools will utilize all licensed teachers, including specialists and interventionists, to provide instruction.

In the middle schools, class sizes would also shrink from 32 students, on average, to 21, but a one teacher-one group model wouldn’t work. So the emphasis will be on allowing students in each grade to move between teachers and subjects while keeping the grades separate within the school.

Dr. Katie Jarnot, the assistant superintendent, said middle schoolers need to a lot of social-emotional learning and keeping the grade levels together is important to that learning.

“It’s about getting kids exposed to things, prepared for things” as they prep for the high school level, she said.

The safeguards built into the system, ideally, would allow for safe extrication of a certain cohort if a student or teacher showed symptoms or tested positive, resulting in a quarantine.

The key, Qualman said, is maintaining a connection — whether in the classroom or online.

“We always want students to say to the teacher, I’ll be online, I’ll be participating,” he said. “Instead of popping up two weeks later and saying, ‘Hey, what did I miss? We can’t get through a school year with that level of absenteeism.”

Silver linings

Shelly Jarnot, the board’s vice president, said, like many parents, she’s had sleepless nights this summer worrying about the safety of students and teachers while trying to find a way to get students back in the classroom.

But she struck an optimistic beat when she talked about all that educators have learned so far while working through a crisis and noted that there will likely be things that stick even when life returns to normal.

“All teachers are going to have to be more tech-savvy,” she said. “If my mother can get on Zoom, anybody can. We are forcing some people that were potentially reticent about taking on these new ways of teaching. We may be better off for it. There are a lot of downsides, but I think there are going to be some upsides.”

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