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As cases rise, Bayfield schools gear up for in-person learning

Some have raised concerns about decision process
Kathy Neal teaches her Bayfield High School ceramics class in September as student Jordan Martindale, 16, demonstrates at the potters wheel. The school district plans to reopen Nov. 30, after shutting down because of coronavirus cases.

In a controversial move, the Bayfield School District is scheduled to reopen Nov. 30 with in-person learning for its entire student body.

The plan to reopen, announced during a special school board meeting Thursday, came nine days after the entire district closed because of coronavirus cases or exposures in each of the four schools. It was announced the day before La Plata County entered a new phase of strict public health restrictions in response to rising COVID-19 cases.

“We need the whole community to work together,” said Superintendent Kevin Aten. “Please don’t email me to keep the schools open and then have 20 people over at your house this Thanksgiving because, I’m honest, we won’t be open very long.”

Schools will follow the district’s 3.0 plan, which brought all middle and high school students back for in-person instruction four days each week and ended the cohort model. The cohort model places students in separate, small groups to try to reduce viral transmission. The intermediate and primary schools will have in-person learning five days each week.

It is the least restrictive plan among La Plata County public school districts. The Ignacio School District uses cohorts, and Durango School District 9-R is closed to in-person instruction.

San Juan Basin Public Health said it provided guidance on the 3.0 plan Oct. 27, after it was adopted by the board Oct. 13, said Claire Ninde, SJBPH spokeswoman.

The health department has not offered guidance to the school specifically for Level Red. The Colorado guidance says the decision is up to the school district, but it recommends hybrid or remote education for high schools, and in-person, hybrid or remote learning for middle schools, she said.

Spread in school settings is lower than in community settings because schools are better equipped for infection prevention, Ninde said.

Divided about reopening

Board members, staff members and community members have shared differing opinions about the reopening plan.

“I feel a little bit of relief that we’re going to stick with our 3.0 plan because I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Board President Mike Foutz, later adding, “I don’t think (3.0) is more effective from a safety standpoint than 2.0.”

Supporters are primarily concerned about the impact of remote learning on students, particularly damaging impacts among students who face difficulties at school or in their home lives.

Under Reopening Plan 2.0, middle and high school students spent two days learning in the classroom and three days learning remotely. Only half the student body was in the schools at a time.

Both Foutz and Aten said the 2.0 model had limited effectiveness because students were not cohorting after school. Bayfield schools also have smaller student bodies than the Front Range, where cohorting is more necessary.

“The other thing, quite frankly, is sports are really important to a lot of our kids,” Foutz said. “It’s what helps them stay in schools and what helps them keep their grades up.”

Aten also said the community “overwhelmingly” wants to keep sports. Aten said he has not taken a poll of the community whether it should return to the cohort model.

“I don’t have a plan to (ask) because I know the answer,” he said.

Board member Amy Davlin had concerns about the plan. Under the 2.0 cohort model, the school stayed open for two months. Under the 3.0 model, it stayed open for 12 days, she said.

“Every board member wants the schools open,” Davlin said. “We have to balance that with ... making sure we do it safely and sustainably.”

Cohorting helps limit the number of contacts each individual has. As a result, if quarantines, dismissals, or school closures are needed, they may affect fewer people, said Ninde, citing Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines.

Davlin said she was uncertain why cohorts were dropped and her efforts to communicate her concerns to the leadership team “have not been received kindly.”

“The way I see it is, this is what they want to do and they’re going to do it,” she said.

The board did not vote on the plan Thursday. Foutz and Aten, who set the meeting agenda, did not include a vote because “it wasn’t something we needed to vote on. We had an approved plan,” Foutz said.

There also was no public comment during the meeting Thursday, but two Bayfield teachers spoke to The Durango Herald on the condition of anonymity out of concern for professional consequences, like losing their jobs.

The teachers raised concerns about how Aten represented information in board meetings and the safety of reopening policies.

Teachers do not overwhelmingly support reopening in-person instruction contrary to Aten’s statements describing majority support for the plan. They said the administration had not considered or sought teacher input.

Aten said staff input has been gathered by principals and leadership teams.

Leadership teams gathered input from teachers and staff members in an October survey. At that time, the high school report concluded that “staying in the cohort model is the best choice.” About 81% of middle school employees said the school was not ready to return to full capacity.

“It’s absolutely unfair to say we haven’t communicated and listened to teachers,” he said. “There is no way in this COVID era to get consensus. People are not going to agree.”

smullane@durangoherald.com