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School Views: Going the distance

Philip Qualman
Eagle County Schools

Last week the school district announced a few difficult decisions related to the last month and a half of school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We distributed a survey to parents, students, and staff to collect input on how the community wanted to approach our upcoming spring break.

On the one hand, everyone has been working hard to successfully transition to online learning and might need the scheduled break for the week of April 20. On the other hand, our community is under stay-at-home orders. All non-essential travel is banned, so the typical spring break plans were out, and we were all going to be spending the time at home.

The community overwhelmingly preferred to continue with schoolwork through the break and end the year early instead. The board of education approved this change to the schedule, and we asked teachers to take it easy next week. Help students catch up. Reach out to those who have been less engaged. Assign work that has a balance of academics and entertainment.

Our students and parents are doing a great job! We are impressed and grateful for how well the transition has been, and it’s a real testament to our community.

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At the same time, the decision was made to also suspend in-person instruction through the remainder of the school year. We didn’t ask the community to weigh-in on this issue, because there wasn’t really an option. With stay-at-home orders and the governor’s closure at least through the end of April in place, the question became: If restrictions were lifted and the community began a phased-in approach to getting back to normal, was it likely that it would be safe to have students and staff together in large groups before the end of the school year?

The guidance we received from other districts in Colorado, the governor’s office, and the information we obtain through regular contact with our local public health department all suggested that it was highly unlikely. Some have said that we should have had a wait-and-see approach, but it’s not just the impact of the virus at this point, but also the challenge of transitioning back to in-person learning.

With it being almost a certainty that we would not return, we decided to take the uncertainty off the table. This gave teachers the signal to keep creating distance-based lesson plans. We hope it helped students and parents settle into the distance-based approach for the long haul.

Put another way, even if given the caution light to return to school by the government, we simply could not risk returning to school and possibly starting a recurrence of infection. Thank you for understanding our concern for the health of your children and our staff.

The third difficult decision had to do with graduations. We want to clear up one point of confusion about our notice to have virtual graduation ceremonies: If at all possible, in May or anytime over the summer, for us to hold in-person graduation ceremonies, we plan to do so. If it’s possible, we will have in-person graduation ceremonies.

But, graduation ceremonies also take a lot of time and effort to plan. All sources, including a specific statement by the governor, indicate that in-person gatherings the size of graduations are not likely to be possible by the end of May. To relieve the uncertainty of our seniors, their parents, and those friends and family members planning to travel here to participate in graduation, we felt compelled to make a decision based on the prevailing wisdom.

We also needed to have the time to organize a quality alternative to happen virtually at the end of the year. It is our hope that today’s seniors have two graduation ceremonies — one virtually in late May, and a second in-person later in the summer, perhaps July. Committees are actively planning to ensure a unique and memorable graduation celebration for our students. We appreciate the support and understanding of this process.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone in the world. Eagle County was one of the first hot spots in the country. The actions that were taken by our public health department, our school leadership team and the board of education, health care providers, and our community members have minimized the tragedy possible by this virus. Staying at home, practicing social distancing, making the sacrifices — as a community — is working. Our combined efforts are keeping the “curve” manageable by our health care providers. There is real light at the end of our efforts. If we hold tight now and continue following the guidelines, then we will be back together and closer than ever soon.

Philip Qualman is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools.


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