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Local Schools Face Difficult Choices Ahead As COVID-19 Spikes In Roaring Fork Valley

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the valley, local schools are having to rethink their plans for the winter months. As of last week, nearly 250 students were quarantined in the Roaring Fork School District and the entire Roaring Fork High School moved to online learning for the week after several staff were exposed to the virus. 

“It’s very disruptive, the pivoting back and forth between distance learning and in-person learning,” said the district’s superintendent Rob Stein.

In Aspen, the high school has also moved to remote learning and at least 400 more students in the district are doing class online. The elementary school just returned to in-person learning and the middle school continues to alternate groups of students for in-person classes, but on Friday, both the schools held remote class for the day due to COVID-19 concerns.

"We're making every effort and we will continue to make every effort so that kids don't go hungry."


Dave Baugh, the new superintendent for the Aspen School District, echoed Stein’s sentiments about the difficulty of moving students in and out of distance learning and said it’s taking a toll on the staff and students. Baugh, who became the new superintendent on July 1, said he never expected to be moving to Aspen and starting his new job in the midst of a pandemic. 


“In a normal school year, when you get close to June, you know, you’re pretty tired and I would say that we’re at June levels of tired right now,” Baugh said. 


Both superintendents pointed out that there have been no known cases of student to student transmission, but cases in the community are continuing to rise. When it comes to planning for the months ahead, Stein and Baugh said they’re working most closely with their respective local county health departments. 


“You get guidance from the fed and it’s okay, and then you get guidance from the state and it’s pretty good, and all of that guidance says, ‘Work with your local health department.’ So we rely pretty heavily on that last sentence,” Baugh said. 

Morning Edition host Eleanor Bennett talks with Aspen School District’s new superintendent Dave Baugh about what it’s been like to lead the district during a pandemic and how they’re preparing for winter.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment just released a new report to help schools determine learning environments. The report evaluates the costs and benefits of in-person learning during rising COVID-19 cases in the state. 

Baugh said they’re reviewing the report and will likely integrate it with their planning. 

“I can't say we will use it exclusively as we work closely with Pitkin County Health and they walk to their own beat,” he added. 

Both superintendents said they’ll continue working closely with their district’s health departments to determine if, and at what point, they may need to move all of their students to remote learning. 

"We only have control over one thing, and that's our response."

Whether that happens, they both said they’re working hard to make sure that some students with special learning needs can continue in-person learning and that students will still receive vital services like internet support and meals from the school. 

At the Aspen School District, Baugh said students with special learning needs were among the first back on campus for in-person support, instruction and counseling. 

“A lot depends on their individualized education plan and we’re continuing to provide high levels of service as fully as we can to our most at-risk learners,” Baugh said. 

When the Roaring Fork School District first closed schools back in the Spring, Stein said they instituted a delivery program to bring meals to different areas where people could pick them up closer to their homes. 

“We’re making every effort and we will continue to make every effort so that kids don’t go hungry,” Stein said. 

The Aspen School District is working with Aspen Family Connections to deliver boxes of food to their students every week. For students who qualify for their free or reduced lunch program, Baugh said they’re trying their best to deliver meals on a daily basis.

When it comes to internet access, Baugh said the district has provided hot spots to most families who need them, but they’re still figuring out how to get internet to a couple of homes that are more remote. 

Stein said the Roaring Fork School district also has some students in more remote areas like Marble and Missouri Heights that may have to come into school to use the internet. The district has also been working on several solutions since March, including a pilot project to expand a cellular-based internet service to students in rural and low-income areas.

Despite all the obstacles that students, families and staff are facing, both superintendents Stein and Baugh expressed gratitude for the community support and implored valley residents to take the rise in COVID-19 cases seriously and follow public health protocols. 

“We only have control over one thing, and that’s our response,” Baugh said.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and "Morning Edition" anchor. She has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, creative efforts to solve the valley's affordable housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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