Eagle County Schools’ superintendent calls for new mentality in navigating the pandemic
District makes some changes in COVID-19 protocol, attitude as it moves through the most recent spike
As the latest COVID-19 spike continues to impact businesses and services across Eagle County, many county leaders are calling for residents to learn to live with the virus.
And at Wednesday night’s Eagle County Schools’ Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman was the latest to send such a message — requesting that the community not let fear and stress override schools’ ability to operate as the pandemic rages on.
“This is the new normal, and it will be for years to come. We will be operating in this mode, with new variants popping up every few months that are going to test our ability to keep schools open,” Qualman said. “But we need to accept that that’s the business that we’re in now, and our kids deserve to be in school. We have to have the courage to be there for them, and we have to be able to control our own emotions.”
While the new variant and spike was certainly cause for concern, he added, it was not cause for panic. The reason, Qualman said, is that the community is in an entirely different place now than it was in March 2020, when the local district shifted all its schools to remote learning.
“Had we seen these numbers in March of 2022, that would have certainly been justification for panic, but we’re not in that place,” Qualman said, citing the existence of effective vaccines and high vaccination rates as some of the reasons why it’s different. “We’ve got to constantly put that into context, that our situation is different and our response — both in our response and our attitudes — needs to evolve from where we were 22 months ago.”
Moving forward with that knowledge, Qualman called on staff and board members to help shift the attitude around COVID-19, doing away with fear and negativity, which, he said, creates toxic stress for staff and students.
“We gotta be aware of what toxic stress is and what it means for our staff and our students. And when we see the results of that toxic stress in their attitudes, it’s up to us to show them that it’s going to be OK, that we’re going to get through this,” he said, requesting that the school board, staff and community help send this message to the rest of the school community.
This is not dissimilar from previous statements and calls made by Qualman this year. At the start of the school year, he expressed a desire to return to other priorities as debates of masks and vaccines dominated the conversations at board meetings.
“All the time and energy that we spend in the back and forth over mandates, masks and the curriculum is time and energy that I don’t spend focusing on our priorities,” he said at the Aug. 25 school board meeting. “I’m making the choice to focus on our strategic plan and priorities that this board has endorsed, and I ask my team to do the same. Those priorities going forward include wellness, equity and systems of support.”
Even so, the latest spike in COVID-19 has had an impact on schools. At Wednesday’s meeting, Melisa Rewold-Thuon, the district’s assistant superintendent of support services, highlighted some of the impacts and changes in protocol as the district moves through the most recent spike.
Both students and teachers returned to school this week following winter break. Rewold-Thuon said that they had many students return to school who tested positive the following day. She also said that in the last two weeks, the district had over 150 staff members report positive tests for COVID-19. However, she added, the large majority of them were able to return to school Monday for the teacher work day.
With the rise in positive cases, specifically those among staff, there have been a few classrooms that have had to transition to remote learning this week. As of Thursday morning, it included the sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms at Homestake Peak School. However, these classrooms are expected to return to in-person learning next Monday.
As staffing presents the biggest challenge in keeping schools open through this latest spike, the district has also worked with local public health officials to ensure school staff gets immediate access to testing at three sites, even amid countywide testing shortages.
“We’re excited to have those additional resources. We think that will help us be able to get to the root of what’s happening with everybody and know who should be in school and who should not,” Rewold-Thuon said.
Rewold-Thuon added that soon, the district will require staff members to present proof of positive tests when they self-report.
The sheer volume of cases also means that the district is changing some of its policies, specifically those around reporting cases and sending out exposure letters.
Since the start of the year, the district has been reporting staff and student positives and absences on a COVID-19 dashboard. However, with the most recent spike, Rewold-Thuon said it was difficult to keep it up to date.
“Before we were using only officially reported staff numbers and student numbers. Because there are so many cases in this community, it’s virtually impossible right now for anybody to do all of the investigation that goes into making an official case,” she said. “The numbers that are on the dashboard right now are the staff members that have reported to us by staff members themselves.”
The district had also been sending letters to families when students had a possible exposure; however, it is also doing away with these.
“We are not going to be sending those individual exposure letters to everyone,” Rewold-Thuon said. “We know that COVID is prevalent in our community and in our classrooms; we just don’t know that it’s there necessarily, so we’d like everyone in the community to assume at any moment that you could’ve had an exposure.”
The district’s ability to operate through the most recent spike is also aided by the updated quarantine guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control. Eagle County Public Health adopted this guidance on Dec. 29.
The new guidance allows for a shortened quarantine period. Rather than 10 days, individuals quarantine for five days if symptoms are no longer present after that period. This significantly reduces the impact on schools and classrooms.
“This is going to help us say in school without having people out for as long of a period,” Rewold-Thuon said. “With our staff, the majority of them are vaccinated and boosted, which puts them into that five-day period.”
She added that if after five days a staff member feels too ill to return to work, they are able to use “those federal 10 days we’re offering to all of our staff.”
The other area of impact has been to athletics and student activities. However, the district is working with public health to minimize these impacts.
“This recent spike has resulted in some changes to athletics and activities. We are still trying to keep field trips on the radar for kids, with as many protections as we can,” Qualman said. “Again, we do want to do business as normal as much as we can for our kids, which means we’re trying not to take away any of their special opportunities”
Currently, with the countywide indoor mask mandate, all athletes, coaches, officials and spectators are required to wear masks, even during active play. As of Wednesday, the only exception was wrestling, where athletes don’t have to wear a mask when wrestling as they present a “health hazard,” said Katie Jarnot, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, at the meeting.
Jarnot noted that the requirement of masks for athletes, particularly those playing hockey and basketball, does make it hard for kids to play their sports.
“We are in contact with our public health department in asking if we could have basketball players and hockey players not be masked during active play. We’re still having that conversation,” Jarnot said.
As such, the district is working with public health to find a compromise, so athletes don’t have to wear face coverings while playing.
Amid the most recent spike, the district is also not canceling any of the overnight athletic trips that are “essential” for these teams due to the district’s geographic location, Jarnot said.
“We compete all over the state; there’s no way to avoid that,” she said. “We just felt that we didn’t want to ruin any seasons or take anything away from kids and that outweighed having to be masked all the time while they’re sleeping.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.