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How a Small Colorado County Prioritized In-Person Learning in the Face of COVID-19, While Protecting its Tourism-based Economy

Over the past year, Chaffee County, Colorado has managed to do something few outlying counties across this state — or this country– have done: support in-person learning for its two school districts. As February fades into March, the roughly 2,246 children ages K -12 of this county, with only a few blips, have been educated in-person for the entire school year. How this county has accomplished this may be a lesson for all counties, no matter their size.

“We prioritized in-person learning; we made it our top priority,” said Chaffee County Director of Public Health Andrea Carlstrom. “After last spring, when everything shut down, we realized that getting our kids back in regular classrooms was critical. So as a county, and as a leadership roundtable, we worked together to get kids back to in-person classes in August and to keep them there.”

Exterior of the new Buena Vista Middle and High School complex, dedicated in fall, 2020. AVV photo by Tara Flanagan.

While in-person learning is but one aspect of the county’s “roundtable” approach, it is a critical piece. The result has been that Chaffee County’s local economy has been sheltered from some of the worst COVID-19 impacts, and parents, many of whom are small-business owners, have been able to focus on business survival, secure in the knowledge that their children are learning in the best possible environments.

“It is a unique thing in America to have what we’ve had for our kids,” said Salida School District  Superintendent David Blackburn. “Sometimes it’s a step forward and it’s two steps back but everyone has figured out how to rally and continue through [the things].”

Lisa Yates, Superintendent for the Buena Vista School District (987 students), has steadily maintained that in-person learning is a priority for families and the local economy. The Buena Vista Schools have held to in-person classes since the start of the 2020-2021 school year, using quarantine and occasional school closures when cases emerge.

The first day of school for Avery Parsons Elementary in Buena Vista, school staff and the town put up signs all over town welcoming students back to school. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

“Many districts are offering online as an option,” Yates said at the start of the school year. “Our district leadership respects this response by other districts and yet holds strong convictions for not doing so. We believe online learning as an option contributes to long-term inequities in education across our nation,” she continued. “With all the effort educators will make, online education has not demonstrated universal success for large groups of students.”

The success both school districts have had has included periods of time when the districts have had to move to remote learning for quarantine periods, for individual classrooms of elementary, middle, or high schools.

Remote learning is not ideal, given the roughly 1,000 square miles of Chaffee County, rough terrain, and unreliable access to Internet or cell service. Both school districts have had periods of time when they moved to remote learning. But both school districts have persevered in returning to in-person learning, with the support of the entire county’s leadership, crossing county, municipal, and business sector leadership.

“The entire Salida School District (1,259 students) went to remote learning only a couple of times this year: Oct. 7-8, Thurs. Oct 22 through Mon. Oct. 26, and the week after Thanksgiving break,” says Salida School District Activities & Facilities Public Information Officer Brandy Coscarella. “The district only canceled two days of school the week of Thanksgiving that we were scheduled to attend, allowing staff to get well and back from quarantines — their own and their children’s.”

“We have had a few other individual quarantines and some individual school closures. We have not  –knock on wood — had a full district remote situation since the week after Thanksgiving,” added Coscarella. “Remote learning was also utilized when we had a bunch of early season snow on Sept. 9, so no closing for a snow day this year!”

Beauty and the Roundtable; Chaffee prioritizes schools

A classic view along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway in Nathrop, with Mt. Princeton in the background. Photo by Jan Wondra

Chaffee County, located in the central Colorado Rocky Mountains, spans a gorgeous section of the Arkansas River Valley; ringed by fifteen 14,000 ft. peaks, and watered by the plunging Arkansas River; home to the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area and the recently-designated Browns Canyon National Monument. It is home to Monarch Mountain Ski Resort, the historic St. Elmo mining area, a thriving Salida Arts and Historic District, and a Buena Vista music scene.

During the summer months, the population of this county of 20,000 people, often swells above 100,000 people. The economy is heavily dependent upon recreation and tourism. Last year, it moved back to “Yellow” on the state’s COVID dial-in time for the critical summer season, necessary to its economic survival.

The COVID-19 Roundtable of county-wide leadership, set up in March, 2020 by the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners, had a myriad of challenges to deal with when it began.” I refer to it as the Community Leadership Roundtable, because this is cross-county. There have been 50 people in some meetings,” said Chaffee Commissioner Greg Felt. “The goal has been to create a space where we could collaborate across jurisdictions and areas of focus and work on solutions to one another’s problems and challenges together.

Approaching fall 2020, Chaffee County focused on its schools. All sectors agreed that opening the schools was the critical piece to not only survive the winter months but that the county’s families needed this to happen.

“Last spring the schools went to remote for the remainder of last year, while we all worked on the emergency, the closing and reopening of businesses,” said Felt. “But as we came into June, our school superintendents reminded us of the true meaning of these schools. They set the entire rhythm of our community — the workday, the workweek, the vacations — our community works best when we have in-person learning happening. As a roundtable, we were fully briefed to help them with their challenges, and supported them as they rolled out their plans.”

Chaffee County has Learned How to keep Schools Open

Salida’s Longfellow Elementary School. Photo by Jan Wondra

First–Both school districts brought their challenges to the Leadership Roundtable which met week after week (early on it met several times a week), involving them in the solutions and gaining advice and support for their actions.

Second — the county learned that there didn’t appear to be evidence that COVID-19 exposures were happening at school. In fact, the quarantines that the school districts placed on students for various reasons came from true community transmission.

Third — the districts focused on the collaborative work of school nurses aligned with Chaffee County Public Health. Their quick action and thorough COVID-19 testing have allowed in-person learning for students to continue.

Neither school district has opted into the at-home COVID-19 tests that were recently unveiled by Colorado Governor Jared Polis, because of the success they have had with the local supply of tests that is managed by the nurses.

“We secured our own supply of local Curative tests, so we haven’t had to resort to those in-home tests,” said Carlstrom. “We planned carefully to be ready and we’ve been on top of this.”

Fourth — when cases of COVID-19 are detected, both districts have reacted swiftly, instigating immediate, targeted quarantines and doing contact tracing to determine any spread due to student contacts and to mitigate the spread.

Fifth — the county’s mission-focus on keeping children in school has flowed into its overall vaccination strategy. That has prioritized vaccination of school staff, from teachers and administration all the way to the lunchroom and the cleaning crews, advancing them into earlier phases of vaccination.

“If keeping schools open is a county priority, and we’ve been doing our best to make that happen, then it’s time to add school staff to the vaccination plan,” said Buena Vista Superintendent Yates.

Friday, Feb. 12, was vaccination day at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds for both staff of the Salida and the Buena Vista School Districts, conducted by Chaffee County Public Health.

Persevering With “Chaffee’s Got Heart”

This is not to say that the county has been COVID-19 free. In fact, the battle to stem the tide of COVID has been ongoing. As the summer 2020 tourism season approached, the COVID Roundtable instigated an intensive facemask campaign with signage at the county and municipal entry points, in an attempt to protect its critical summer season.

The five-point “Chaffe’s Got Heart” message is intended to target both residents and visitors to the county, to help the county mitigate the spread of COVID-19

The campaign had some success, but by fall, the case spikes from visitors and community spread was growing. By August, the county slipped into the COVID-19 dial Orange level, indicating high risk. It stayed there for seven months until its recent reclassification into Yellow on the states’ new, more favorable COVID 2.0 dial.

Just before Christmas, the COVID Roundtable put its support behind a new effort called “Chaffee’s Got Heart, reinforcing the five aspects of COVID prevention.

With solid support behind the campaign the county is hoping to finish the school year strong and in-person, and keep its local economy alive until the county – and the country– conquers COVID.

Ark Valley Voice staff contributing to this story; Jan Wondra, Tara Flanagan, and Brooke Gilmore.

Featured image: Salida Middle School students take a recess during a recent school day. Photo by Principal William Wooddell.