Few will forget the tumultuous week of March 9, 2020. Americans had witnessed cases of COVID-19 rapidly proliferate across the country and around the world. On March 10, Governor Polis declared a state of emergency after the presence of COVID was confirmed in Colorado. The outbreak was designated a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. By March 12, a group of Austalians visiting Aspen had tested positive and Friday, March 13, saw the cancellation of many events and closure of local schools as all levels of government took precautionary measures to slow the mysterious virus from spreading.
When the Roaring Fork School District sent children and teachers home for an extended spring break, there was a wishful glimmer of hope that classes could resume by March 29. It soon became evident that things would not return so easily to how they had been. Instead, educators were challenged to learn to teach online for the safety of their communities. One year later, schools continue to navigate the pandemic with careful measures in place.
To get a sense of how the disruption was felt and where things stand, The Sopris Sun visited five elementary/middle schools around Carbondale to check in. The schools include Crystal River Elementary, Carbondale Middle School, Carbondale Community School, Ross Montessori, and Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. Every interview involved a site visit.
Approaching Crystal River Elementary School, one notices signage marking the sidewalks and doors to indicate a flow between classes taking place outdoors. When the Roaring Fork School District returned to in-person learning in October 2020, it began with the youngest children. Of any grade to teach online, k was invariably deemed the most challenging with broad acknowledgement that much of kindergarten is learning social interactions.
Principal Matt Koenigsknecht, who is stepping away at the semester’s conclusion, noted that staff is generally thrilled to be back with the kids. “It’s why we do what we do.” Special precautions are evidently successful, with no school-based transmission reported. Measures include mask wearing, dividing the school into cohorts, and starting the day a little later and ending slightly earlier. These shorter school days provide a small reprieve for teachers that are “on duty” all day long.
Down the road, Carbondale Middle School is following similar guidelines. Teachers and students of a cohort take lunch together in a classroom instead of with the entire school at once in the cafeteria. Recess time is also staggered, one cohort at a time. In addition to accompanying their pod all day, teachers serve students that remain full-time distance learners. Every classroom has a laptop open for those students. Through careful planning, a full cohort can transition to online suddenly if and when it is necessary to quarantine.
“We have incredible support,” says Principal Jennifer Lamont. “It’s amazing how patient, tolerant, and flexible [parents] have been.” Lamont reflects on returning to classrooms after the extended spring break and seeing “Friday, March 13” still written on the chalkboards.
Similarly, the Carbondale Community School (CCS) saw aspects of that infamous week “frozen in time.” Incidentally, it happened to be “big event” week for the school. This annual, all-school theater production had performances scheduled when the closures began. Students performed their play in costume for a taped rehearsal that stands in lieu of the intended production. When I visited, artwork created for the Big Event 2020 still decorated the walls.
CCS returned to in-person learning at the beginning of fall semester using a hybrid approach. Principal Sam Richings-Germain explained that although CCS is within the Roaring Fork School District, charter schools are allowed more autonomy. This flexibility, she continued, has allowed their school to respond to teacher’s needs. The trade-off is less funding per pupil from tax dollars. With the loss of typical fundraising opportunities, CCS is currently undergoing a campaign to help fund enriched learning opportunities like outdoor education trips.
Similarly to the other schools, students at CCS are spaced apart, masks are worn, and supplies are kept individual. One major difference has been the school’s choice to maintain Wednesdays as a “buffer” to prevent transmission and also provide a planning day for teachers. This strategy has also served to reinforce distance learning habits and CCS continues to have students that are full-time online learners.
Ross Montessori, another charter school, maintains the philosophy that the best education happens in-person, modeling good character for children. For that reason, the school also returned students to their classrooms at the beginning of fall semester 2020, although a percentage remains online.
“It’s been exhausting, but it’s good essential work,” confirmed Head of School Sonya Hemmen. Hemmen explained that mask wearing has not presented a problem for the students. On the contrary, Hemmen has observed “magnified eye contact,” citing Lao-Tzu’s “The Art of War.” One sense dulled enhances the others. Plus, all classrooms have an observation chair where students can take a “mask break” if necessary.
Ross Montessori noted a decline in skills after last spring’s abrupt switch to distance learning. After extensive conversation between parents and educators, it was decided that “We have to be together as humans, there’s no substitute.” Compared with four hours of online learning, Hemmen explained, seven hours in-person was deemed paramount.
Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork is a private school, funded by tuition. This allows the school to act more independently. Waldorf’s guiding philosophy, founded in 1919, involves limiting technology use in classrooms. The school emphasizes outdoor learning, especially for the lower grades, and encourages active (rather than passive) engagement with technology. Although they got creative to go online last spring, it was imperative for the school to return to in-person learning at the summer’s conclusion and earlier than normal to make use of warm weather and longer days. Waldorf opted not to offer an online option and saw some families decide to leave.
Enrollment has remained stable, however, with the influx of forty new families since the pandemic began. Many of the newcomers, I was informed by Communications Coordinator Liesl Bellack, are new to the area having left major cities as the pandemic settled in. Community events traditionally form an important part of the school’s identity, but the campus is currently closed to visitors, including parents of the new students. Meanwhile, Waldorf is exploring other ways to share their principles including bilingual storytime opportunities.
All schools hope to return in the fall with more of a semblance of normalcy but also consider that some measures might be useful to preserve. In the case of Ross Montessori, for example, it’s “surgical flamenco precision hand washing.” For Waldorf, it could be an extended holiday and more flexible calendar. Maximizing time outdoors has proven universally valuable. It is possible that several schools consider shifting permanently to a later start time. The greatest commonality is that all schools demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to listen to their communities’ needs. Also, each school is now accepting enrollment applications.
It takes community support to keep The Sopris Sun shining.