This fall, nearly every local student – at Fort Lewis College or in 9-R schools – had an option to learn in person.
Nationally, only 19% of districts offered a full in-person option and less than a quarter of all colleges and universities held classes fully or primarily in person. Over the summer, with guidance and support from San Juan Basin Public Health, our teams developed plans to keep students learning in person. And we delivered on those plans.
Yet this week, both of us made the decisions to alter our plans for fall instruction. It was a gut-wrenching decision because we know our classrooms offer a safe place for our students. The decision was made even more difficult because of the incredibly hard work our respective staffs and faculties had put in to develop and implement a plan to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on education. While we are deflated by the short-term decision, we are not defeated.
Durango’s relatively low case count this fall and the commitments of our respective teams to pull off in-person learning put us in a rare group among educational institutions – a relatively normal fall class schedule. Our classrooms were the safest place to be for our students on several levels. In fact, neither 9-R or FLC has a confirmed case of classroom transmission.
However, rising case counts in our region made normal operations increasingly difficult. The masking, distancing and testing protocols we put in place kept transmission within the classroom basically at zero. Even though our educational settings were safe, our classrooms are not an island. For FLC, our system to quarantine students who had been exposed to the virus and to isolate infected students was near a critical breaking point. For 9-R, the restaffing of classrooms – when adults who had been potentially exposed to the virus are quarantined – has exceeded the capacity of existing staffing resources. And the growth in community cases forced us to think about how we can proactively break the chain of transmission and ensure the safety of our schools and classrooms.
Schools and colleges provide a social and public good far more than education. They care for the emotional, social, intellectual and physical needs of students. Students of all ages need to be in school, and to do that, we need the community to lean in to breaking the chain of transmission.
Don’t gather, wear masks, work at home if possible, understand and champion public health orders, and ensure that your children, families and friends understand the importance of these steps as well. If you see friends and even extended family members outside your household, do it outdoors and wear a mask. Inconvenient, you say? Indeed – but try teaching a first grader to read remotely.
Our students belong with their teachers. Over the next weeks, we will keep working on ensuring that our students’ needs are met and planning for face-to-face instruction as soon as it can be resumed. We need you to do your part. We know our community has suffered and made sacrifices during the pandemic. Given rising case counts in our region, we all need to ask ourselves how can we further stall transmission. To get back to the things that we all love – and for us, that is working directly with students – we’ll have to make more sacrifices.
We can do this, Durango!
Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College and Dan Snowberger is superintendent of Durango School District 9-R.