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Local schools struggle with tough pandemic-era semester

Locations: News Published

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a level of disruption, uncertainty and hardship unprecedented in our country and the world. This has been especially true for our education system at all levels, which has faced enormous challenges in how to conduct cohesive, sustained and effective instruction at a time when the pandemic has wreaked havoc on our daily lives.

In Carbondale, Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) schools have each addressed the situation in their own way. All have instituted groupings called “cohorts,” which RFSD Public Information Officer Kelsy Been described as units of “students who have close contact with other students [i.e., about 6 feet] for longer than 15 minutes each day.” In that way, if there has been a coronavirus issue with a student, it has been much easier to identify and quarantine students who have had contact with that individual. 

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At Crystal River Elementary, the cohorts have consisted of standard individual classes with a limited number of students and one homeroom teacher, the advantage being that they have been with the same classmates throughout the school day. On the downside, however, if one student in that class has a coronavirus issue, the entire class has had to quarantine, and the teacher has had to implement distance learning.

That situation happened recently with third-grade teacher Tina Spiccioli, who, with her 17 students were quarantined for five school days in December. They were planning on returning to in-class instruction the week before winter break (which began Dec. 18) when the decision was made for CRES to finish the semester online.

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Spiccioli found the fall term frustrating, lamenting, “It’s been hard to build relationships with the kids. We started [the school year] online, then we were in school.” But with some families opting for online instruction only, she got new kids from other classes. “In November, it was like the first day of school. We were getting in the groove, and then [had to] quarantine.”

At Carbondale Middle School, each grade has been made into one large cohort. Been explained that this has involved, “matching students with classes and teachers that best meet their needs. Students are mixed differently in every class according to their needs in order to create the optimal learning environment for them. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s not possible to simply quarantine a single teacher’s class, … [meaning] a larger group is impacted when students must quarantine.”

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Rhonda Tatham, a special education teacher at CMS, observed that this has been especially difficult for teachers like her with special-needs students of different grades in the same class. Creating lessons that can be presented in person as well as online, “has been a challenge.”

Tatham is also president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association, representing RFSD teachers. “Teachers are working extremely hard to make sure that kids quarantined and in person are getting the best education they can. However, this is not sustainable as many teachers can’t keep up with kids in person and online plus make sure they are taking care of themselves.” 

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The approach has been different at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). There, students have attended classes as they normally would, moving from one subject to the next. The cohorts there have consisted of specific seating charts in each classroom. If one student has a coronavirus-related issue, it has been easy to identify those who were in close proximity, and only they have had to quarantine.

When asked why RFHS chose this method, Been responded, “Our instructional team researched several models for returning to in-person learning during a pandemic over the summer, including a block schedule. Ultimately, we stuck with a typical schedule due to staffing and other scheduling logistics.”

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This has meant that, when RFHS has been able to have in-school instruction, if one or more students is quarantined, the teacher must conduct simultaneous in-person and online instruction. Denise Wright, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade English, noted that this has posed a significant challenge for developing lesson plans. She continued, “For a subject like mine, [in-class and online instruction] works pretty well.” But for a science teacher, if just one student is quarantined, his or her lab “just got blown up.”

Wright added, “One of the biggest challenges is the lack of substitutes.” 

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She recently had firsthand experience when she had to quarantine herself for two school days. Indeed, Been noted that both CRE and RFHS transitioned to distance learning before winter break, largely as a result of “diminished staffing capacity because of quarantine.”

As of the start of winter break, per the RFSD COVID Dashboard, 692 students, 47 faculty and staff, and 29 cohorts were under quarantine throughout the system. Perhaps the good news was that only 31 students and staff had actually tested positive for the coronavirus to date, and none had contracted it at school. Been also noted, “We have had 12 staff leave because of COVID since the pandemic started.”

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Looking past winter break, Been said, “We are providing Roaring Fork Schools Online High School, a fully remote option for those who need to choose that option during spring semester.  As much as possible, in-person and remote learning will be separate, but because high school schedules are so complex, there might be a few exceptions: Some classes will continue to be taught by an in-person teacher.”

Tags: #Carbondale Middle School #Crystal River Elementary #Denise Wright #Kelsy Been #Rhonda Tatham #Roaring Fork Community Education Association #Roaring Fork School District #Tina Spiccioli
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