Durango schools will offer three different learning models when they reopen Aug. 25 for the 2020-21 school year and are examining the current summer sessions for lessons to help minimize risks from COVID-19.
“Summer school has given us a chance to practice procedures and an opportunity to refine them,” Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger told Board of Education members earlier this week.
But with only a fraction of students enrolled in summer school, Snowberger said teachers, principals, parents, students and administrators will all learn more in the fall when they deal with the complexity that arises when a full complement of students arrives at schools every morning.
One thing is certain for fall: The district will offer three different learning models for students – traditional in-person learning, a mix of in-person and remote learning, and a remote-only option relying on online and at-home work.
Durango’s à la carte approach offers more options than Ignacio, which requires parents to choose between in-person and online learning. Bayfield has not yet finalized its opening plans, but could provide an update as soon as July 24, said Superintendent Kevin Aten.
Learning modelsSo far, most Durango School District parents indicate they will opt for traditional in-class learning, but parents are making an array of decisions about what’s the best and safest path for their children in dealing with the pandemic, and that has led the district to offer the three learning options.
“We need to meet families where they are,” Snowberger said.
On Aug. 10, 9-R will ask parents to declare which of the three learning models to enroll their children in.
The goal for school year 2020-21 is to ensure all three learning models offer equal academic rigor, so the district can pivot to emphasize one or another of the models as the epidemiological situation of COVID-19 changes during the year, Snowberger said.
Ensuring equal academic rigor would leave the district better-positioned should it be required to go to an all distance-learning scenario if the virus again spikes, forcing closures of schools – as ordered last school year by Gov. Jared Polis.
Because of space limitations, if a 6-foot social-distancing requirement is in place next school year, the district would need to adopt the hybrid model of learning for all students who want some in-person learning.
Each in-person class would be split into two groups with one group meeting in class on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other group on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with students using remote online and at-home learning for the three weekdays they are not at their schools.
School district classrooms, which typically have about 20 to 25 students, lack the space to provide the 6-foot social distancing that has become the standard guidance recommended by health agencies for public spaces.
Ever-changing environmentProcedures dealing with the novel coronavirus, Snowberger said, will inevitably be an ever-evolving situation as more knowledge is gained about the pathogen, as the changing epidemiological situation emerges locally, and as additional guidance is refined from health and educational agencies at the federal, state and local levels.
The school district plans to have some definitive procedures in place by mid-August to guide everything from contact tracing, social distancing, mask wearing, health screenings, sanitation, procedures on buses and expectations of district staff.
But before procedures are finalized, the district will hold a series of meetings to get feedback about the plans.
“Our intention is not to be polarizing but to have a safe and effective plan in effect,” Snowberger said. “We’re not going to be able to meet everyone’s demands, but we’re going to have a plan that’s clear and concise that promotes a safe environment.”
The mask questionGov. Jared Polis this week issued a mandatory mask order that applies to anyone older than 10, but the order is due to expire Aug. 15, before school starts.
Policies regarding the wearing of masks – or the absence of a requirement that students wear masks – drew feedback from about 10 people earlier this month during a 9-R Board of Education meeting.
Sierra Foster, a special-education teacher at Park Elementary School, said she is particularly concerned students, as currently advised by 9-R, are only strongly encouraged to wear masks. Instead, she said the district should require students to wear masks.
“The CDC and the World Health Organization both advise that masks be mandatory, especially when social distancing can’t be maintained,” Foster told school board members.
Snowberger said the district is following the recommendations of the Colorado Department of Education on the rules for students’ use of masks. Updated CDE guidelines, expected to come out in the next few days, are likely to change the state agency’s recommendation and will likely require all students across the state to wear masks at school.
The school district will follow CDE’s guidelines for students’ use of masks, and if CDE requires masks, Snowberger said that guidance will be adopted in 9-R procedures.
The district has obtained face shields, masks and gators that will be offered to staff and students for the upcoming school year to provide a range of face-covering options.
Snowberger said face shields might prove best for many elementary teachers because it’s important for younger students to see facial expressions of their teacher as they learn phonics and language skills.
DHS open campusOne problematic area 9-R is struggling with is the open-campus policy at Durango High School. The lunch period presents particular challenges for contact tracing as hundreds of students disperse for a bite to eat.
Snowberger said the district is examining adopting a closed campus policy at DHS, perhaps for only the first nine weeks of the year, to protect the ability to perform accurate contact tracing should any student or staff member test positive for COVID-19 during the upcoming year.
Guidance from othersThe school district’s procedures, which are contained in a 43-page draft, are not being written in a vacuum, Snowberger said. They are based on recommendations and conversations with a number of agencies including the CDE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance is also coming in conversations with state and local health departments, Fort Lewis College, the city of Durango, La Plata County officials and neighboring school districts.
“I think there is a view that our procedures are being developed in isolation, but we are guided by a number of health and educational agencies,” Snowberger said.
Comments on proceduresSchool board members will get their first look at the draft on July 24, and public meetings are slated for feedback as 9-R further refines procedures.
On July 30, members of Durango Education Association and the Durango Education Support Professionals Association will meet with administrators to review 9-R’s draft of COVID-19 procedures.
On Aug. 5, a Zoom meeting will be held for all district staff to provide their comments.
Other meetings will be held Aug. 6-7 with parents and community members.
On Aug. 10, the district will ask parents to declare which of the three learning models to enroll their children in.
School board President Shere Byrd told fellow school board members Tuesday she is open to having an unscheduled meeting in August to review back-to-school procedures if they feel it is necessary. Currently, the school board is not scheduled to meet next month.
“I know there are political issues surrounding this, but my belief is that our primary concern should be public health,” she said.