Nearly one month into the school year, La Plata County schools have seen some of their fears realized as coronavirus cases have cropped up and children have been quarantined.
But their COVID-19 safety plans seem to be working.
After schools shut down mid-school year last spring, communities around the country wondered how they could restart during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools are germ factories, and viral transmission would be hard to prevent.
Students and families across La Plata County seem willing to comply with hundreds of pages of COVID-19 safety policies. Staff members chalk it up to sheer gratitude that school is even happening.
“I think it will fade, but it is really powerful right now that our kids really want to be here – even our cynical fifth graders that really don’t love school,” said Hilary Preston, a fifth grade teacher at Park Elementary School in Durango.
Each district – and each school within each district – has slightly different COVID-19 policies. They all focus on symptom screening, social distancing, sanitation, mask wearing and cohort learning to reduce possible transmission of the virus.
The plans are a testament to the role schools play in providing community services. They provide transportation, extracurricular activities, social-emotional well-being care, nutritional services, therapeutic services – and the list goes on.
But the half-empty school buildings with quieter classrooms seem surreal. Stuffed animals and beanbag chairs are gone, water fountains unused. In some schools, cafeterias are empty and hallways sparsely populated during class changes. Or, class changes themselves no longer happen.
Instead, staff members remind students to stay socially distant. Masks abound. Districts are using disinfectant bombs or Star Wars-like jet pack disinfectant misters each evening to sanitize the buildings. Children are becoming professional hand-washers and cleaners during the day.
“There’s definitely a fear around (being in school). There’s so many unknowns,” said Dayna Talamante-Montoya, Ignacio Middle School principal. “A lot of our kids are being raised by grandparents, so they want to keep them safe.”
In all three school districts – Bayfield, Durango and Ignacio – staff members say students and families are willing to follow the policies, which are now tried and tested by possible cases of the virus.
Three of the 12 schools in Durango School District 9-R have had suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19. Instead of having to shut down the entire school, the district sent small groups of students, called cohorts, home to quarantine for up to two weeks.
Bayfield quarantined cohorts from its elementary schools after a positive test result this week. Ignacio has not reported any cases. Only Durango did districtwide COVID-19 testing before the year started.
“I thought it was a really great first week. We knew eventually somebody would come up with a case,” said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for Durango schools. “I’m feeling really good about the safety measures our staff have been able to implement in a short time.”
Losing classrooms in DurangoTwelve third grade students sat outside at Park Elementary School, 510 East Sixth Ave., absorbed in their computer work. Some brought their own camp chairs, umbrellas and small tables.
“Sunscreen is a new addition to the school supply list,” Popp said.
Durango schools offered families three learning options: in-person, remote-only or a mix of the two. Cohorts are typically about 15 people. Campuses were closed: Almost everyone, even The Durango Herald, was kept out.
Outdoor lessons are one of the most popular adaptations to the pandemic at the school. Teachers are ditching the classroom in favor of rocks, grass, fresh air and mask breaks.
“We have both chosen to be outside a lot for safety reasons,” said art teacher Taylor Henzler, referring to herself and Preston. “That, in itself, tells you that we’re a little concerned about the virus.” The two teachers worried that safety would be even harder as more students returned to school, making classrooms more packed.
“There’s so much emotion behind teaching and leading during a pandemic. A lot of that is fear,” said Principal Marie Voss-Patterson. “We talk a lot about what are those fears we have, and how can we do self-care.”
Staff members hope to keep some COVID-19-related changes, particularly teaching outside. Voss-Patterson said the school is more efficient in some ways, and teachers are bonding with students over lunch. Soon, she hopes everyone will adjust to the changes.
Across the field from the third graders, other cohorts laughed and yelled at the playground, divided in zones to separate groups. The play structures are sanitized daily, but not between cohorts. Instead, children wore masks while they played and washed their hands immediately after recess, Popp said.
The kids seem to be all right.
“I’ve been very, very impressed with the students and how they’ve been doing,” Preston said. “They are such flexible little human beings. They get told to do a new thing and they do it.”
A ‘herculean’ task for BayfieldThe Bayfield School District took 530 survey responses into consideration for its plan. Bayfield students spend three days learning online and two days with cohort groups in classrooms.
“The herculean task was getting school open,” said Superintendent Kevin Aten.
In chemistry class, three students sat one per table, all wearing masks, while learning about the periodic table, and an English teacher marked X’s with blue tape on the floor to separate desks. An art teacher reminded her entire class, all eight students, to stay socially distant as they crowded together to watch a pottery wheel demonstration.
During a change in classes, students flooded into the hallways, all wearing masks, then disappeared within four minutes.
At lunch, half of the students in the school streamed through a line, making cohorts harder to separate. Students sat at new, round tables, meant to space them farther out. The school had even torn down a wall to increase airflow.
“In Bayfield, and a lot of your smaller, more rural communities, (school) is the cornerstone of the community,” said Leon Hanhardt, Bayfield High School principal. “Parents want their kids in school, so our job is to ensure we put the safety protocols in place.”
The goal? Lifting restrictions and bringing more students back as soon as it was safe.
“The best-case scenario is to get all of our kids back in school, every day,” Aten said. “Teachers need kids, kids need teachers. We need to get everybody back in.”
Trying to be normal in IgnacioIgnacio Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto emphasized that the school year needed to be as normal as possible. He, too, wanted to see more children come back to school.
“For the kids, we want to keep it normal. For the staff, it’s different,” Fuschetto said. “Teachers are doing a fantastic job.”
Ignacio allowed families to choose either in-person or remote learning. Of the 175 students at Ignacio Middle School, about 40% learn through live, online classes.
In class, seventh grade math teacher C.T. Wristen balanced questions from masked students spread around the classroom with “pings” and questions from students learning online. A large screen displayed lesson instructions, while split-screen videos of remote students appeared on his laptop.
“So what did she do? She multiplied that, right?” Wristen said to a student in the room. When he asked the remote students if they had any questions, he received a string of “nopes” via online chat.
The bell rang, but the students didn’t leave. Class changes now involved teachers wheeling carts – essentially mobile classrooms – from room to room in empty hallways.
School policies for quarantining individuals revolve around identifying fevers. Unlike Bayfield and Durango, the plans don’t mention other symptoms of COVID-19. At first, Fuschetto did not want staff members to take temperatures at all, even though other districts did it on site. He said it was the family’s responsibility.
“That’s Bayfield’s plan. That’s Durango’s plan. This is Ignacio’s plan,” Fuschetto said.