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A little over a year ago,  Lisa Yates was on the phone with Andrea Carlstrom, Chaffee County’s Director of Public Health, regarding a trip to Disneyland for which students had been fundraising.

Carlstrom was away at a conference, and Yates, as the superintendent for the Buena Vista School District, had to ask some questions about the new virus and how that might enter the picture.

Buena Vista’s schools focused on in-person learning this year. Coming into the 2021-2022 school year, the superintendent wants to the district to be focusing even more on back-to-normal mode.

“Within a week it was far more than Disneyland that we were thinking about,” Yates says.

She describes the past year as a marathon and says she had absolutely “no inkling” of how it was going to play out. For what it’s worth, nobody else knew, either.

Yates is among community leaders shifting their vocabulary toward recovery and easing off the language of crisis. It’s a common topic these days in Chaffee County’s leadership roundtable, a twice-weekly forum where people have offered news, advice, and virtual hand-holding, and have hashed out just about any subject that relates to COVID-19, including what this place is going to look like – how businesses reboot as vaccines get into arms, and how tourism handles the projected uptick.

But there are expectations and assumptions arising from the response to the pandemic that are unique to school districts. Will online learning become a fixture? Parents often ask how schools plan to close the so-called learning gap.

A year ago on March 1, it was fairly clear the virus had popped up in the United States without a clear path for containment. In just two weeks, on March 17, Vail Resorts would close its lifts, setting the stage to shutter the Colorado ski industry for the season. Streets emptied. The eerily quiet towns and cities looked like the movies where aliens from outer space had gotten loose.

Schools followed suit, sending students and staff into an unknown world. Some kids plugged in fairly well to the idea of learning from a screen in their living rooms. Some kids didn’t have internet or anyone at home who could help with schooling. In other homes, there were too many people in their space to allow for learning. Other kids missed out on meals and the consistent contact that school provided, and some just stopped logging in.

Looking ahead to the 2020-2021 school year, the Buena Vista School District took a bold step and declared that its classes would be held in person. Other districts, particularly those in urban areas, started fall classes online or succumbed to long stretches of remote learning after losing too many staff to quarantine.

Buena Vista’s schools opened for the year August, with several layers of restrictions and contingency plans, including contact tracing and quarantine. It set up an online learning system – considerably improved from the efforts in the spring – in case it became necessary. Since then, a few elementary classrooms have been sent home for periods of time and schools have occasionally closed, briefly, as cases were identified. It’s almost certain that cases will continue to emerge through the spring.

But now that staff have had access to vaccines and as some public health officials are predicting a flattening of COVID-19 cases as the weather warms, schools are looking at what it looks like to not operate in emergency mode. The appearance of variants in the virus has brought about some possible new cautions in communities, but Yates says that just can’t drive the way schools operate in the future.

Vocal about the importance of schools being open for in-person learning, Yates is now increasingly outspoken about not having to operate in crisis mode for the 2021-2022 school year.

In a recent presentation to the board of education, she stressed that schools require balance and that the scales have been tipped by the ongoing emergency response mode. “Although these restrictions were necessary to respond to the emergency at hand,” she said, “they do not lend to sustainability for the future. Systems, and the people who operated them, are not designed to live in a state of crisis/emergency for long periods of time.”

Yates’ opinion is this: “The Public Health Emergency needs to shift to recovery with waivers for the operation of schools if restrictions continue for 2021-2022,” she continued. “…During the emergency, schools have been flexible and have met the demands, but these cannot be sustained into the coming year. The threat of the variant strains of this virus or possible re-infections cannot drive our collective response for schools. Close-contact tracing and quarantining must not be the expected practice into the future for schools. … Our schools can be responsible for continuing the mitigation of health risks and the comprehensive academic growth and well-being of students if restrictions are lifted.”

While Buena Vista’s schools have not offered separate online learning programs, Yates says that looking ahead, there are growing pressures for schools to offer remote learning as an option. She anticipates that it will become more of a national question than a local one, but says it could become a trend.

“Normalizing online or remote learning erodes the strong academic and social/emotional learning public schools offer,” she said to the board. “The path is already being set for this, and unless the state is ready to financially invest heavily in remote learning and hold schools accountable to the same levels of growth and achievement, it should be carefully considered.”

She adds that online learning has prompted a growing set of “big-picture liability” questions. “You have a live classroom setting and the activities of the home, the individuals, are on display,” she says. “Can you require a student to be on camera? Where does the classroom start and end?”

Yates also said that at this point, schools have mitigation materials and additional staff they need in response to COVID-19. “Providing one-time funding for this limited purpose does not support student growth in the long term. It would be far better to use these dollars to restore general funding to public schools than to simply provide stimulus money.”

As for closing educational gaps brought about by the pandemic, Yates told the board that the “fixation on ‘learning loss’ is misguided.

“Instead, we need to meet students where they are,” she said. “None of us have survived a pandemic as a youth. Our students faced a life trial, and we must consider what they have also gained that is not easily measured… Piling on or stuffing topics of learning and skills into time games to ‘catch students up’ would be like shoving more seeds into a pot of seedlings and expecting it to cause more growth more quickly.”

She said that instead, the schools need to “nurture and attend to growth right where (students) are, not forgetting there is a spirit of tenacity that suffering can bring. This does not mean schools dismiss opportunities in coming months to provide enrichment, credit recovery and ongoing building of skills – schools should embrace these opportunities as they would at any time but not in the spirit of pressured deficit.

“Our students learned plenty of immeasurable skills during this time,” she said. “If we meet them where they are, growth will come.”

Looking into the summer, she said, “Let’s give them that opportunity to breathe again.”