Parents, students and staff look ahead with hopes for a normal school year

One thing will definitely change next school year: start and stop times

Say goodbye to masks, temperature checks and other mandates. With coronavirus cases on the decline in Eagle County, school will probably look a lot more normal next fall.
Chris Dillman/

Without question, this past academic year was incredibly challenging for students, teachers, staff and parents at Eagle County Schools. Battling changing restrictions and mandates, the school community is hoping for a return to normal in the fall.

At the Wednesday meeting of the Eagle County Board of Education, a group of parents showed up to advocate for no masks, no vaccine requirements and no social distancing from the beginning to the end of the 2021-22 school year.

The group of seven parents expressed their concerns for students’ mental and physical well-being should they enter another school year like this past one. Their concerns ranged from calling the mask mandates “child abuse” with “irreversible effects” to asking the district to “remove the fluff and get back to business.”

While the district has not made any official statements or declarations as to what next school year will look like, all signs point to a return to normal. According to Superintendent Phillip Qualman, the district is finalizing a memo, which will detail its plan for next school year. The district expects the memo to go out next week.

According to Superintendent Philip Qualman at Wednesday’s meeting, this will include no face masks required, a five day a week, in-person schedule for all grade levels as well as a full schedule of after-school activities, with online classes available through World Academy for those that are interested. Additionally, the district will not require vaccines of staff or students.

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“I’m excited to get back to normal,” wrote Qualman in an email. “We have an exceptionally strong team of educators and leaders who are eager to rekindle their relationships with students and each other, and focus their energies on what we do best, educating students.”

A new bell schedule

While it is the district’s hope that next year brings a return to pre-pandemic conditions, one thing is certain to change. At Wednesday’s meeting, the school board unanimously voted to approve new start and stop times for all schools in the district.

This shift has been part of an ongoing discussion as the school district grapples with a bus driver shortage. With nearly half of the bus drivers it needs to fulfill its current routes, the district determined that standardizing bell times across school level would be the most efficient method for addressing its shortage.

With the new two-tiered bell schedule, all pre-K, elementary schools and Homestake Peak School will start school at 7:55 a.m. and end at 3:05 p.m. All middle schools and high schools will start at 8:40 a.m. and end at 3:50 p.m.

These changes not only provide the necessary 45-minute window between levels for bus drivers to make all their stops, but the standardization has benefits for all.

According to Qualman, the “consistency in schedules has a lot of advantages for us.” The primary one being that it creates a general fairness for all teachers. Now, all schools will have a total of 7 hours and 10 minutes a day to meet the requirements for instructional minutes. Previously, this differed between grade levels and schools themselves. How the schedules are built out — with teacher planning time, recess and class time — will be up to each schools’ principal and planning committee.

Unfortunately, the two-tiered bell schedule doesn’t go far enough to solve the district’s bus driver shortage. With the current low number of drivers, other changes to transportation will likely still need to be made. This includes increasing the self-transit distance around schools, consolidating routes and stops, and utilizing and incentivizing public transportation options.

The exact mix of these changes will not be decided until later this summer and will likely fluctuate during the school year, based on the number of drivers hired.

In order to operate fully on the two-tiered schedule, without deploying any additional options, the district would need to have 35 total drivers.

The district did recently OK a $5 hourly increase in salary rates for bus drivers in the hope that it would improve recruiting efforts and make the district competitive against other local employers. According to Sandra Mutchler, the district’s chief operating officer, since this increase was implemented June 2, the district has been able to hire two new drivers that will begin training soon.

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