‘Relief and nervousness’ as students, teachers return to public schools in Eagle County
EAGLE — John Staight said his son, Evan, woke up at 6:15 on Tuesday morning and couldn’t wait to get to school.
“My son’s real social,” Staight said after dropping the boy off for his first day of first grade at Brush Creek Elementary. “He needs to be around other kids. He needs to be in school. He’s been excited all week.”
That excitement was palpable at public schools throughout the valley as Eagle County Schools kicked off an academic year unlike any other Tuesday with students and teachers returning to classrooms in masks with socially distanced protocols in place.
At Brush Creek in Eagle, it was a pretty typical first day, with a parade of students and parents walking and biking to school and Eagle Police Chief Joe Staufer directing traffic at the crosswalk. A staffer dressed as the school’s mascot in a bobcat suit bopped around out front, greeting kids.
But there were noticeable differences from years past: teachers doing temperature checks on students, classroom cohorts gathering on the front lawn and the ball field before heading into school and, of course, masks everywhere.
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Teachers were also stressing social distancing by spreading students out and giving them visual cues about how far apart 6 feet is — with one teacher even using a measuring stick with her second-graders.
The masks covered noses and mouths, but there were plenty of smiles underneath.
“The kids are super excited,” said Kim Wedgeworth, a mom who has a first- and third-grader at the elementary school. “They’re excited that we aren’t home schooling and they’re excited to be here in person.”
A community comes together
Superintendent Philip Qualman had visited eight schools in the eastern half of the county by 1 p.m. on Monday and planned to make it to as many schools in the district as possible by day’s end. He described the emotions of the day as an “interesting combination of relief and nervousness.”
“I think people are just excited to have kids back in classrooms. I talked to a lot of kids in classrooms and, to a person, they were all just excited to be back in school and be around their friends and be in a real classroom. That was definitely a powerful sentiment,” he said. “I felt the same thing in teachers. A lot of the nerves that they had coming back, once they had students in front of them, everything was falling into place and you could see them getting a lot more comfortable.”
A lot had to fall into place just for schools to reopen on Tuesday.
The district’s decision to start schools with a modified in-classroom model came on Aug. 10, just hours after the county downgraded its COVID-19 risk level from concerned to cautious on the county’s weekly performance indicator graphic.
On Monday, the county downgraded its risk level yet again, to the green comfortable stage, after weeks of messaging from county and school district officials urging residents to reduce contact and adhere to social distancing to lower COVID-19 transmission rates.
“What we’ve seen in the last month and what we’ll be able to do for the next three months is really just Eagle County coming together,” Qualman said. “My bigger concern is going to be when our resort season kicks back in in November that our fate will be more determined by what our visitors bring to our community and if they’re willing to abide by the standards we have followed to get to this point. We appreciate our tourists and understand that we’re in a destination community, but these next few months are really important because this is when we control our destiny.”
A plan comes together
Qualman said staffers throughout the district, in the run-up to school starting, voiced appreciation for the extra time to prepare after the school board approved a reopening plan on July 22 that pushed the start of the school year back a week.
He also said principals and teachers and school staffers appreciated being able to take guidelines from the district and come up with creative solutions in their own schools to make teachers and students feel safe.
Qualman was impressed, at each school he visited, how staffers found clever ways to use space — including setting up classrooms outdoors under shade tents.
“We can’t micromanage for 18 different facilities,” Qualman said. “They know their space, they know the capacity of what their staff can cover and what their neighborhood communities want to see. … I think that’s what contributed to people feeling so comfortable coming back in.”
And what’s taking place in Eagle County between the district, teachers and parents is a far cry from some other communities around the country, Qualman said.
“Our teachers association has been very open about their concerns. We’ve been collaborative about trying to overcome those,” he said. “I feel fortunate that we’re in a place where our teachers are in the building … I read Chalkbeat every day and you probably see the cases of teachers doing walks and strikes and pickets. That’s just a nightmare for me. I’m really glad that we have a strong relationship with our union and can make responsive changes so they can feel like their safety is taken care of and we’re not putting them in harm’s way.”
While it was just one day, and the true test of whether the district’s hybrid model of in-person learning will be sustainable in the weeks and months to come, that first day back sure felt good.
For the teachers and the parents — and especially the kids.
“I feel good about it,” Staight said, talking about his first-grader. “We’re excited to have him back in school and doing something pretty normal. Seems a little odd seeing all the kids with their masks and you can’t see their expressions, but otherwise my son’s real excited.”
“The teachers were amazing,” Wedgeworth said. “The first and third-grade teachers sent out little videos yesterday showing them what they looked like with the masks off and the difference of what the classroom is going to be like, with all the protection gear vs. what it would be like without. … I wish the masks would go away, but I’m happy that we’re here in person for four days a week. Hopefully five days soon.”
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at email@example.com