Eagle County students return to school in person
Only Homestake Peak’s sixth grade classrooms will transition to remote learning this week
After having a couple weeks off for winter break, Eagle County students returned to school in person Tuesday. Despite the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in the community, schools were able to return with limited staff and student absences.
According to Matt Miano, Eagle County Schools’ chief communication officer, only the district’s sixth grade classes at Homestake Peak School will have to transition to remote learning due to staffing shortages. These classrooms will be remote Wednesday through Friday, returning to in-person instruction Monday.
Otherwise, student and staff absences were nothing out of the ordinary, Miano wrote in an email Tuesday.
“We did not see a large portion of our population out to start the week. While there were absences, we cannot attribute all of them to quarantine or a positive COVID-19 infection,” Miano wrote of students.
The district works closely with Eagle County Public Health and Environment to determine the number of students in quarantine. For students that are in quarantine, Miano wrote that the district is working on providing remote learning opportunities.
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“Individual students are able to work with their teachers on assignments to help reduce learning loss. Also, every student has a device they are able to take home as needed and every teacher utilizes Schoology to post lesson materials so students can access them from home,” Miano wrote. “We are expecting that any transitions to remote instruction will be brief and are focused on keeping them at no more than one week at a time.”
Since the start of the year, Eagle County Schools has faced challenges with staffing — both due to unfilled positions, as well as normal staff absences and absences due to the virus. Coming back from winter break, this was no different.
“While we are seeing some absences we continue to see our fill rate remain at similar levels that they’ve been at most of the year,” Miano wrote, adding that still not all absences here can be attributed to COVID-19.
“These shortages will impact the overall learning experience so we will monitor each situation individually so that we can ensure the best opportunities for our students,” Miano wrote. “If we find ourselves in a position where that is not the case we will shift a classroom or grade level to remote learning.”
Teachers are certainly feeling the stress of not only these vacancies but another year of teaching through the pandemic.
“As with any complex issue there are a myriad range of feelings about returning to school in-person amid the surge,” wrote Karen Kolibaba, president of the Eagle County Education Association and fifth grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary, in an email Monday. “ECEA’s number one priority has always been consistent, we want to ensure the health and safety of the students and staff in Eagle County School District.”
Kolibaba added that while there was a “general feeling of concern regarding how each site will be able to do this with the numbers of staff that are already ill and the numbers that may become ill during this surge,” the association’s positive working relationship with the district’s leadership helps take care of both students and staff needs.
However, there is still some question over how this could add to the staff’s already stacked workload.
“In general, staff are very flexible and willing to do what needs to be done in order to support student needs. With our current guest teacher and staffing shortage, we know this will add to needs,” Kolibaba wrote.
“Working in education seems to become more complex every year. With more added to our plates, I advocate that we work to decrease some other responsibilities,” Kolibaba added. “For instance, as we are amping up to have more students remote and more teachers ill, we should eliminate assessments that are not mandated or do not drive our instruction. This would also include allowing us to step back from new professional development and focus on fine-tuning what we already do for the benefit of our staff and students.”
With these absences, the district relies on guest teachers — though it has also experienced shortages of these this year — as well as collaboration on the part of all staff to fill vacancies where possible.
“We have worked collectively to help fill in these vacancies much as we have all year,” Miano wrote. “From our Director of Early Childhood Education driving a bus, to our principals and administrators teaching classes, we continue to work together to get through this.”
Prior to heading off for break, Eagle County Public Health extended its public health order requiring masks in schools through Jan. 17, giving public health and school officials a chance to better understand the latest COVID-19 variant and to give the public time to adjust to any changes in the order.
Schools are also now covered by another public health order put in place a week after this extension, which requires masks in all indoor places.
In a phone interview Tuesday morning, the county’s public health director said that he was unsure if the mask mandate would be extended beyond Jan. 17.
“It is something we’re continuing to look at,” Heath Harmon said. “We want to make sure that we’re looking at your local data and working with a number of local partners to understand what the needs are going to be for our community.”
In evaluating this extension, Harmon said they will continue to look at and for the following:
- The capacity of hospitals and the local medical system;
- The strain on local workforce;
- A decrease in new cases, or a slowing of the current spread in Eagle County;
- An increase in vaccinations, particularly for 5 to 11 year olds, as well as booster doses for 12 and up; and
- Ensuring the community has an appropriate level of testing and vaccination resources.
Keeping schools — as well as other community sectors — safe and at full capacity remain the priorities for public health, Harmon said, adding that this is something that can only be accomplished by “slowing or reducing the spread of the virus.”
“And it’s certainly the most supportive thing we can continue to do for the emotional well-being of not only our youth but, let’s face it, our entire community,” Harmon said.