Eagle County Schools addresses COVID-19 and staffing challenges
After almost a month in school, the district has 67 unfilled staff positions as COVID-19 continually adds challenges
After nearly a month in school, the local school board was updated on several areas of concern — as well as bright spots — at Wednesday’s board meeting. It included discussions about COVID-19 operations, staffing and enrollment.
COVID-19 remains a primary factor in the planning of the current school year. As the delta variant grows, Eagle County Schools continues to update its operations for challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Just before the start of school, following a local public health order, the district mandated masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors at buildings that teach pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The district’s high schools had no mandate, simply a recommendation for individuals to wear masks.
However, earlier this month, the district quickly adapted to address an outbreak at Eagle Valley High School, where there were “nearly 30 positive cases” of COVID-19 identified in a week, Superintendent Philip Qualman said. The district implemented a two-week mask mandate at the school Sept. 3 through Thursday.
Following the increase in COVID-19 cases, the school hosted a testing event Sept. 1 that Qualman said resulted in 200 tests and produced 25 positive tests.
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While the high school’s increase in cases impacted the school’s volleyball and football teams, Qualman said at the board meeting no other sports in the district have been affected by the pandemic — a bright spot for the district as it continues to emphasize the importance of keeping kids in classrooms and activities.
Qualman said that while there are new additional testing sites in the county — such as the Gypsum Sports Complex and Eagle Pool and Ice Rink — leadership was evaluating whether to participate in a COVID-19 testing program administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that gives students, faculty and staff to access to free weekly rapid-antigen COVID-19 tests from a Denver team contracted through Colorado Public Health.
Before the start of the school year, Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email to the Vail Daily that the district would not participate in the program but would continue to monitor COVID-19 in the community and vaccinations.
However, as the virus incidence rate rises in the county, the district is considering the program.
“I want to be clear that this testing is optional for staff and students who want to take advantage of this. Parents would have to opt their students into it,” Qualman said. “We haven’t finalized this agreement; we’re just collecting information.”
Qualman asked for the board to weigh in on the program. Some board members expressed concern that having the program could create social pressure for getting tested and asked if there were other community locations where the testing could be done.
“I like the idea of having more data available about where we’re at with cases right now,” said Board Member Michelle Stecher. “The main advantage to schools seems like that’s where many kids are at a given time, but I agree that I think it comes along with a pressure or perceived affiliation with school that I don’t think is necessary.”
To increase participation, the state is also considering offering incentives, like a $10 gift card, for students and families that opt in, which some board members did not support.
The district has yet to decide on the program but will be looking into other possible locations for testing, as well as whether the mask mandate could be temporarily repealed for students who tested negative – something that Qualman said he would ask public health about, but “can anticipate the answer will be no.”
The board also voted to reimplement an emergency power for Qualman that would allow him to close schools — transitioning students to a remote learning option — in an emergency that threatens the safety of students and staff without board approval. This power also allows Qualman to adjust instructional modality and implement safety protocols.
“You and the principals, you’re in the trenches, you’re in the front line,” said Board Member Ted Long. “I personally think you’ve made very thorough investigations and let us know what’s happening, and I don’t feel like that’s something you take lightly. I think there’s a strong case for this.”
The power was granted in March 2020 but expired at the end of the past school year. With the extension, the power will be granted to Qualman through June 30, 2022.
Last week, the school also relaunched its COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks quarantines and positives of staff and students as well as school attendance percentage and unfilled staff positions.
“That tells you how many positions our regular staff and other personnel are filling in to try to keep classrooms open,” Qualman said of the staffing meter.
According to the dashboard, as of Sept. 7 the district had 33 students who tested positive for COVID-19, 55 students who were in quarantine and 55 students engaged in remote learning. These students represent 2.1% of the district’s total student population.
For students in quarantine, some learn through World Academy remotely until their quarantine is up. If students are only out for a few days, some can keep up with their regular classes through Schoology.
Also, the district had 11 staff positives and 13 staff members in quarantine as of Sept. 7, resulting in 28 total unfilled positions. The numbers account for 3.4% of staff districtwide.
Unfilled positions are a growing concern for the district, especially as it faces other staffing challenges.
Not enough staff
Like many employers in Eagle County, the school district faced challenges hiring enough staff for the start of the school year. The district currently has vacancies for 48 support positions — which includes positions like paraprofessionals, custodians and assistants — and 18 certified positions.
At the start of the meeting, Qualman addressed the staffing shortage. He said that there is an assumption that staffing numbers would return to a pre-pandemic normal this year, adding that “unfortunately, that is not where we find ourselves.”
To cover these shortages, the district has limited time for professional development and planning. Teachers fill in for colleagues on professional development considered essential. It is also offering $30 an hour for work after hours or the weekend. Additionally, teacher leaders may be asked to cover classes, forfeiting individual planning, for which they are paid $30 an hour.
The human resources department is also exploring additional recruitment strategies to fill positions.
“These vacancies have extended beyond the classroom, and some have been expected,” Miano wrote in an email. “At the beginning of the year, bus routes were adjusted to accommodate. We’ve also had members of district leadership and employees from other departments that have stepped up and helped out wherever necessary whenever they are able.”
Shelley Smith, the director of early childhood education, gave an example of her department stepping up at the meeting. As a creative solution to transportation challenges in Avon, Smith and other early childhood teachers are driving students to early childhood programs in the morning.
“It’s a really great way to start your day,” Smith said.
One way that the district has previously advocated for the community to help with some staffing challenges is by opening applications for guest teachers through its human resources department.
Several departments of the district have been hit harder than others.
Since last year, the school district — like many others across the state — has had a difficult time finding bus drivers. The result is a change in bell times for this school year, increased recruiting efforts and a $5 hourly raise for drivers.
Another department struggling with hiring is the district’s early childhood team. It has 16 vacancies in its support staff positions. As a result, state requirements kept the district from opening an infant classroom, two preschool classrooms and the extended day program at Homestake Peak.
“Our shortage of staff is very acute in our preschool program, and the result is that many of our preschool rooms are operating under capacity in terms of what we could host in students because we can’t hire enough people to meet state code for staffing levels,” Qualman said.
These challenges are met with an overall growing need for early childhood programs.
However, Smith said that several actions would positively impact hiring programs. First, is a pilot program with Colorado Mountain College allowing teachers to get certifications while working for the district. The department is also working to involve interested students in early child care by integrating them with afternoon spots that require less certification. The department is also reviewing the compensation of its teaching assistants as it continues to lose teachers to private providers.
“Our compensation is significantly not at the level of the job (and) duties of the certified teachers, and we have several teachers that are leaving for private providers, which we’ve never faced before,” she said. “They are paying $3 to $4 higher than we are right now. It’s a huge challenge.”
Enrollment ahead of the curve
A bright spot for the district is that its enrollment numbers are looking “well above where we’re supposed to be,” Qualman said.
“Initial projections by professional demographers showed that Eagle County Schools would lose 200 students by this year, (which) was anticipated because of pandemic challenges as well as cost of living, and we just weren’t seeing families moving to the community,” he said. “However, we bucked that trend last year and stayed right where our account was supposed to be, and this year we’re actually looking at being about 200 above projection.”
Schools showing enrollment “well above” projections include Battle Mountain High, Red Sandstone Elementary, Red Hill Elementary, Gypsum Elementary and Eagle Valley High.
Qualman said the numbers are still subject to change, with the final count expected in October. Enrollment could impact staffing numbers per school and funding to the district.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.