Eagle County Schools welcomes students back to school
Despite rising tensions and mask mandates, students returned Monday eager and ready to begin the new year
On Monday, local schools welcomed students back into their buildings for the start of a new academic year, bringing with it new opportunities for growth and learning.
“For the most part it was like any other first day,” wrote Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, in an email, adding that schools saw, “Kids with a mix of jitters and excitement to get back to class, see old friends and meet new ones.”
There was some trepidation leading into the school year as a new public health order was announced on Friday, bringing with it rising tensions.
The order, announced just a few days ahead of the start of the school year, required masks for all students, teachers, staff and visitors at all buildings where students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade are present. At the area’s high schools, masks are not required but merely recommended for those who are unvaccinated. Masks are required for all students on district buses.
“We’re disappointed at the timing, but we can’t control when metrics change, and we’ve said all along that we would be responsive to those changes,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman at the time of the announcement.
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The question of whether or not masks would be required in schools has been bubbling for months, with parents — predominantly those advocating against masks in schools — arguing their cases regarding masks and vaccines at the last four Board of Education meetings.
After the order was announced, some parents expressed gratitude on social media channels, praising the district for making the decision. Others expressed frustration with the district, threatening to pull their students from schools, something that was stated by multiple parents at the Aug. 11 school board meeting.
Throughout the summer, Eagle County Schools has maintained that remote learning options would be available through World Academy. After the new public health order was announced, Miano wrote that the district has had “a number of inquiries in regards to the various options.”
Whether or not school enrollment has been impacted, however, remains to be seen, he added.
Teachers, for their part, returned to school last week and were busy with trainings, district events — including the annual Educator Academy on Friday — and classroom preparations.
“Your teachers, even while they are concerned about what may come this year, Eagle County’s children’s educators are visibly preparing to welcome students back into buildings,” said Karen Kolibaba at the last school board meeting.
In order to keep the peace, Eagle County law enforcement officers were present at schools across the valley on Monday morning.
According to a release from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, “The law enforcement presence is being increased due to the tensions in the community, related to the new mask guidelines at several schools.”
The release went on to state that, “Our goal is the same as yours, getting our children back to school safely. Law enforcement is requesting that persons who are wishing to express their opinions not interfere or interrupt the freedom of movement and the functions of the schools.”
According to Miano, the district did not see any increased activity or protests at any of the schools on Monday and everything ran smoothly. Going forward, the district doesn’t intend to have an increased law enforcement presence outside of schools, with law enforcement only available “as needed,” he said.
Regardless of the orders and increased tension, Miano wrote that the district’s primary focus “remains on keeping our kids in schools for five-days-a-week of in-person instruction. We appreciate all of our local law enforcement agencies for helping us to ensure a smooth start to the school year.”
The school district, working in continued collaboration with Eagle County Public Health and the Environment, hopes that the mask mandate is a short-term scenario. The order will be relaxed if an entire school reaches an 80% overall vaccination rate or the seven-day incidence rate for Eagle County goes below 50 per 100,000.
Public health officials maintain that vaccines are the best way to protect from infection. For those under the age of 12 who remain ineligible for the vaccine, Eagle County Public Health Director Health Harmon previously told the Vail Daily, “The best way to protect them from infection is make sure that everybody around them is vaccinated.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.