Schools in Eagle County plan to return in person next week
The district expects that disease trends, staffing challenges could force remote learning in some classrooms
Eagle County students are set to return to school as planned on Tuesday following Winter Break and the most recent surge of COVID-19.
Eagle County Schools has relied on a mask mandate since the start of the school year to keep students in schools. As students return next week, the requirement of masks for all students and grades will be just one of multiple precautions to maintain in-person learning, five days a week.
“Parents should expect a near-normal, in-person school experience as it has been all year, but with the continued understanding that we may have to shift our game plan moving forward,” wrote Matt Miano, Eagle County Schools’ chief communications officer, in an email on Thursday. “We continue to believe that five days a week of in-person instruction is what our kids need to be academically successful and emotionally healthy.”
In the days before students left for break, Eagle County Public Health extended its public health order requiring masks in school buildings with preschool through eighth grade students to Jan. 17. The decision was made as uncertainty around what the omicron variant would bring loomed.
Days later, the most recent surge of coronavirus hit Eagle County, bringing the largest number of cases the community has seen since the start of the pandemic. Vail Health and Public Health officials speculated that this surge could be attributed to the omicron variant. Then, just one week after the county extended the mask mandate in schools, public health instituted a mask mandate for all indoor spaces to slow the spread of the latest surge.
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With these mandates in place, masks will be required in all grades at all schools when students return next week, Miano wrote.
“Presently, we do not plan to provide testing at any schools and will be following CDC’s updated isolation and quarantine guidance,” he added. The updated Centers for Disease Control guidance shortened the recommended time for isolation for the public from 10 to five days.
Heath Harmon, Eagle County’s public health director, wrote in an email Thursday that public health intends to work with families and schools on “multiple precautions.”
“The face covering requirement as students return to in-person school will be an important layer of protection, but it will need to be complemented with other layers,” Harmon wrote. “When combined with vaccinations, hand-washing, reduced mixing of students or classrooms, monitoring for symptoms and staying home when sick, the collective risk for exposure is better managed.”
Harmon added that while no public environment is risk-free, “these layers are necessary to continue to prioritize the importance of in-person schooling as a community need.”
In addition to working alongside Eagle County Public Health to make its decision about returning to school, Eagle County Schools collaborated with Eagle County Emergency Management, Colorado Public Health, Colorado Department of Education and superintendents in neighboring districts of Summit, Roaring Fork and Aspen, Miano wrote.
Remote learning possible
However, with case rates still elevated in Eagle County — the third-highest in the state of Colorado and fourth in the country (behind Pitkin and Summit) as of Thursday — Miano warned that there plans could change as the district continues to monitor the disease trends alongside Public Health and local health care partners.
“We plan to begin in-person, and if necessary, transition to remote learning,” Miano wrote. “Those transitions will be done at the smallest possible level, starting with the classroom, then grade level, then school, but hope to avoid district-wide transitions for remote learning.”
Staffing undercuts challenges
As with many other employers in Eagle County, one of the district’s biggest hurdles in re-opening will be staffing amid the recent spike in COVID cases.
“We remain understaffed, as we have been all year,” Miano wrote. “In this current spike, we expect that staffing will be the factor that causes a few classrooms, grade levels, or schools to shift into temporary remote learning until this spike passes.”
Miano added that “data from South Africa and the U.K. suggest the spike will be short lived” and that the district has been able to hire a “few more guest teachers and support staff in recent weeks” to offset impacts of the virus.
Already, however, there have been some staffing-related impacts.
“With staffing shortages, parents should also be aware that bus routes will be affected and we will contact those parents as soon as we are able but these decisions may have to be made on short notice,” he wrote.
Considering the larger community
The decision to reopen school buildings and maintain in-person learning as best as possible is something that Harmon said helps not only the well-being of students, but also to alleviate overall impacts to the community at large.
“We look at a number of factors ranging from workforce to the social and emotional needs of our youth to the potential impacts any decision can have on other parts of the community,” Harmon wrote. “In addition, we must consider the broader needs of the community. For example, the cascading impacts if child care or schools are closed would more broadly affect all business sectors as many of our employees may not be able to be at work if they need to care for a child at home.”
Many of the precautions in place are also meant to alleviate the impact on local health care providers as they face increased volumes of patients due to COVID-19 and the holiday season. On Thursday, Vail Health reported that amid its busiest time of year, the hospital has also seen an increase in the number of pediatric patients for COVID-19.
“We have already seen an increase in pediatric visits in our community,” said Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, in an interview on Monday. “If you have kids that are 5 and over that are eligible for vaccination, please get them vaccinated. For the ones that are under 5 that are not yet eligible to get vaccinated, really protect them as much as you can.”
And before students head back to school Tuesday, another holiday precedes the start date. Eagle County has seen COVID-19 spikes following every holiday. Heading into this weekend, Harmon said that public health is also recommending scaling back plans for New Year’s.
“Holding a smaller gathering outside or canceling all together, are ways we can all help support our schools and child care centers for reentry next week,” he said, adding that the agency continues to recommend vaccinations (including boosters), wearing face coverings and staying home when sick to reduce risks.