The Roaring Fork School District announced Friday the 2020-2021 school year will begin virtually on August 17 since COVID-19 risks in the Roaring Fork Valley remain high. District officials said they worked with public health officials and used evidence-based information to make the decision for school to begin online with some improvements from the spring.
"While we all want to return to face-to-face instruction because we know it's best for student learning and deeper relationships, choosing to do so while COVID-19 cases are on the rise would put the entire community at risk," said Roaring Fork Schools in its announcement.
The first week of school, students will begin online school with a week of orientation. Teachers and students will work on establishing relationships, students will check out Chromebooks, receive training on online tools and teachers will assess the academic needs of their students. Daily schedules, that the district says will bring more frequent live classes and better student accountability than in the spring, will begin August 24.
Charles DeFord, an English teacher at Glenwood Springs High School, said teachers have been preparing cirriculum for online learning since summer began, so he feels better prepared for virtual learning than in the spring. Though, DeFord said it still won't be the same as in-person learning.
"[In distance learning], you have to do more to collaborate with people and that takes a tremendous amount of time," DeFord said. "I do think, though, it's the only choice that we could have made if physical health is our primary focus when we are considering opening schools."
DeFord said a majority of teachers at Glenwood Springs High School would have been concerned if the district announced a hybrid or in-person learning plan for the fall. He said students learning and teachers working from home this fall may take a toll on overall mental health, but with COVID-19 cases rising in the Roaring Fork Valley, he didn't see any other option.
"So much of this particular virus remains unknown...I think we're going to have greater efficacy [with online learning] because of this kind of more cautious approach," DeFord said. "But even if it is unsuccessful, it's better to be cautious, in my opinion."
Roaring Fork School District officials said if COVID-19 risk levels decrease as the school year goes on, students and teachers will begin transitioning to a hybird or in-person learning model. Online learning is guaranteed until September 21, but any change to hybrid or in-person approach will be announced September 8.
For students and staff to return to the classroom, district officials said they must take the following steps:
- Improve HVAC systems in each school to improve ventilation and filtration
- Provide adequate PPE and a robust cleaning system
- Create a logistical, realistic cohort plan to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among staff and students
- Provide safe transportation
- Offer meals for both in-person and virtual students
For the meantime under virtual learning, daily attendance will be taken for all grades and courses, typical grading policies will be practiced and there will not be any school-sponsored activities or trips, although athletics will continue with a phased reopening until the Colorado High School Athletics Association announces a decision for fall sports.
The Roaring Fork School District Board of Education is expected to review and approve the distanced learning plan at Wednesday's meeting at 2 p.m.