School Views: Hearts and minds |

School Views: Hearts and minds

Two years ago, I asked Eagle County Schools to value the interaction between hearts and minds. I asked that we acknowledge and act with the understanding that students learn best when they feel safe, respected, and valued.

Likewise, our staff teach best when they feel safe, respected, and valued. The “hearts and minds” idea is all about building authentic relationships — with students, with staff members, with our community. We believe it is our focus on relationships that has allowed us to offer modified in-person instruction during the pandemic.

With cases continuing to escalate, however, we’re crossing into new territory. A growing number in our community do not believe that schools remain safe. Local, state, and national news continuously sound the alarm about a “dark winter,” that “things will get worse before they get better,” and “even though vaccines are on the horizon, we have months of historic public health crisis to endure before we can expect vaccines to be widely available.”

The barrage of warnings and repetition of alarming statistics through the media elevate our collective stress and anxiety. This results in families shifting more students to remote learning, and staff members expressing growing concern about working in schools. Even though our data suggests that schools have been, and are, safe environments for students and staff, the data doesn’t matter if people don’t feel safe.

When hearts are fearful, staff and students don’t feel respected or valued if expected to be in school. It is possible that public sentiment about the safety of school will turn red before the COVID-19 dial. We have to accept that if hearts no longer support teaching and learning from classrooms, then our system isn’t working with engaged minds.

Our present goal is to stay the course until the break. If Eagle County falls into the red, severe risk category on the state’s COVID-19 dial during break, then the school district will switch to remote learning.

It wouldn’t be the same remote learning experienced in the spring. Since the beginning of the year, teachers and students have worked with technology that organizes and provides access to lesson plans, assignments, homework, and resources. We have been prepared to go remote from the beginning. We have worked hard to keep students in classrooms for the past 14 weeks. Students and teachers both have experience learning and teaching in a virtual environment.

Through the implementation of extremely small class sizes, students and teachers have forged strong relationships. They have practiced with the systems, tools, and expectations of remote learning. Teachers have received exceptional training in how to manage remote teaching and learning. Every student has a device to connect to lessons remotely. If we go remote, instruction will be on regular schedules to provide much needed continuity and structure.

Importantly, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We don’t know how long the tunnel is right now, but vaccines are imminent. Yes, distribution will be complex and may even be slow, but relatively soon we will be seeing and hearing news of vaccinations happening around the world and even here in our own county. Hopeful news. News that can help sustain us through months more of remaining committed to the containment of the virus and the protection of one another.

If we must go remote in the meantime, help us rise to the occasion. Help us make the best of it. Help it be for the shortest time possible.

Up to this point, we have relied on each other to get through this trial. If we transition to red and begin remote learning, we must continue to rely on and support one another until conditions improve again. They will improve. And, as hard as it is, as hard as it will be, Eagle County residents will come out on the other side with our relationships intact and stronger than ever.

As we emerge from this extended crisis, we want everyone in our organization to feel respected and valued. We want students, staff, and the community to feel they are part of a school district that listens to understand, and has their long-term health and safety at its core.

We want to remain grounded in trusting relationships and successful collaboration, to carry on the good work of educating and caring for children. We are prepared to make the adjustments necessary to ensure the district remains strong to successfully navigate the challenges that lie ahead. And, if we continue to stick together, hearts and minds will prevail.

Philip Qualman is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. Email him at

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