Some schools are ‘getting closer’ to going remote amid COVID-19 spike, staffing challenges
The district’s focus remains on keeping students in schools for learning
As Eagle County Schools prepares to take a weeklong Thanksgiving break, it is contending with rising COVID-19 cases and quarantines among its staff and students.
“We’re trying really hard to keep schools open, but we’ve come close at a couple of locations to shifting to remote,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman at last week’s school board meeting. “We’ve gone through 12 weeks of school with that as a last-resort option that we have not had to entertain, but it’s getting closer.”
According to the Eagle County coronavirus monitoring dashboard, there has been a recent spike in case incidence rates for all school age groups that started around Oct. 31.
“We think that’s related to some Halloween parties, festivities, activities,” Qualman said at the meeting. “We hope that spike is starting to come down.”
However, during the week of Nov. 7 — the most recent data on the dashboard — the numbers were still rising. The rate of infections per 100,000 people by that date was at 3.07 for children younger than 5, 8.93 for children between 5 and 10, 9.3 for kids between the ages of 11 and 13, and 6.36 for youth between 14 and 17.
These increases follow a countywide and statewide trend of rising COVID-19 cases. Eagle County as a whole has a one-week incidence rate of 345 cases per 100,000 and a two-week incidence rate of 674.2 cases per 100,000 as of Monday, Nov. 15.
According to the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which was last updated Nov. 11, it has 38 students that have tested positive for the virus and 56 students in quarantine. At the same date, it had 18 staff members with positive cases and 21 staff members in quarantine.
The staff numbers, in particular, are something that the district has had some difficulty contending with throughout the entire year. Not only is it dealing with COVID-19-related absences — which can take out staff from 10 to 14 days — but it has normal staff absences and vacations to navigate, a shortage of guest teachers to fill these absences and between 60 and 70 unfilled positions across the district.
The district is keeping a close eye on these numbers as staffing shortages are one of the main factors that could lead to certain buildings shifting to remote learning. The close calls are “mostly related to staffing,” said Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer.
“We want to make sure that our in-person experience is what it needs to be in the best interest of our students,” he said.
There is no specific threshold for when the district would transition a school to remote learning. Instead, it will “evaluate each situation independently,” Miano said.
So far, as Qualman notes, the district has been successful in keeping students learning in person, even during recent outbreaks. Outbreaks in schools are defined by the state of Colorado as five or more cases in a single classroom.
Specifically, Brush Creek Elementary and Eagle Valley Elementary have both recently experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. As of Nov. 11, Eagle Valley Elementary had 10 student positives and 13 students in quarantine, as well as three staff positives and three staff quarantines. Brush Creek had five student positives and six students in quarantines by the same date.
The outcome of these outbreaks was certain classrooms moving to a “one-room schoolhouse” model, where students remain in person but do not mix with other classes during lunch and recess, Miano said.
With the rising numbers, Miano said, most of the spread between students has not come from classrooms, “but rather homes and out of school events.”
For this reason, its protocols — which include mask requirements for pre-K through eighth grade, promoting frequent hand-washing and providing additional social distancing when practical — will remain in place with no changes.
“At this time, we feel our protocols are working as well as they can,” Miano said. “We will re-evaluate should the need present itself.”
Some staffing reprieve
With regard to staffing, the district has experienced some reprieve in some of its greatest areas of need.
Earlier in the year, the Board of Education approved funding to address staffing shortages, which included funds for a salary increase and hiring bonus for guest teachers, as it struggled to fill teacher absences with substitutes.
So far, it’s going well. Miano said that the district has been able to hire 20 new guest teachers, allowing it “to increase our fill rate for absent staff.”
However, there are still challenges with filling these absences.
“We’ve gotten quite a few (guest teachers) in rotation, but with these incident rates, they’re not just out for one or two days; they’re often out for 10 days to two weeks,” Qualman said at the board meeting. “It’s quite a burden.”
It seems that teacher leaders and district administration are also stepping up to fill absences, including the superintendent himself. Qualman said that he has subbed at Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley high schools, as well as at one of the middle schools, in recent weeks.
One of the district’s other areas of great need was school nurses. At the start of October, it only had one of five nursing positions filled for the entire school district. Part of the board’s funding approval includes a salary increase and hiring incentive for school nurses.
So far, these have also proved somewhat successful; the district has hired two nurses.
“We have had some success with nurse hiring, and that has allowed delegations to continue for those students in need and also helped to keep our schools covered with health assistants and nursing needs,” Miano said. “We are continuing to look to fill more of these roles but have been pleased with how everyone has pulled together and helped to keep our kids safely in school.”
No vaccine mandates
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids between the ages of 5 and 11, Eagle County began offering vaccines to the community’s youngest population at the start of November.
While this approval could help boost the immunity of the community as a whole, Eagle County Schools has no plans to implement vaccine requirements, continuing to leave these decisions up to families.
“The district would never approve, condone or endorse vaccinating anybody without parent permission or knowledge,” Qualman said last week. “We have no plans of imposing any vaccination requirements.”
The district also has not imposed, nor will it, a vaccine requirement for any of its staff.
However, with these vaccines available — as well as the availability of booster shots — Qualman expressed hope the incident rate would start to trend the other way.
“With those pieces in place, hopefully we can increase our immunity and keep spread to a minimum, so we can keep schools open,” he said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.