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Our community has suffered a massive disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil of the last three months. Throughout that time, community leaders have worked in concert to adapt to changing regulations and to work with Chaffee County Public Health to navigate the process of reopening many of our business sectors and public activities. With in-person learning canceled for our schools after spring break and summer vacation following that, we’ve been able to postpone in-depth conversations about our school systems.

That is about to change.

The new Buena Vista School entrance from the artist’s renderings. With the high school complete, construction of the middle school has continued unabated during the pandemic closure.

Over the next several weeks, the Buena Vista and Salida School Districts will be finalizing plans for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. Both districts have confirmed the intention to roll out their plans to the public during the week of July 6th. There are several points to consider as we approach this milestone, as well as the school year ahead.

First, I would like to commend our Superintendents Lisa Yates and David Blackburn, and their boards and staff, for both the diligence they are applying to the tasks at hand and for the very collaborative approach they have implemented in building their scenarios.

Second, we should all be clear that each district is tailoring operational plans to meet the unique requirements of their students and communities. The two plans will not be identical. We understand and expect that.

Furthermore, as a countywide community, we need to embrace both districts and their plans, be ready to support them in their successes, learn from the challenges, and collectively adapt to changing conditions and new information over the course of the school year.

Third, we need to acknowledge that re-opening the schools comes with some risk. However, the operative objective will be to effectively manage that risk so that other critical educational values can be achieved. The re-opening plans are being developed in consultation with the medical community, the hospital, public health, and our regional epidemiologist in order to best achieve this balance.

Fourth, it is unlikely that the Chaffee County COVID-19 situation will remain static during the 2020-2021 school year. Both the school districts’ plans and their implementation will, therefore, be dynamic, with some pre-established public health criteria or checkpoints that will inform potential changes of stance in terms of managing risk.

Fundamental to those changing approaches would be a reduction in interactions to balance increases in community risk levels. Chaffee County Public Health will be a key school partner in this ongoing assessment and development of the strategy.  As a community, it will be our role to support the decisions made by the schools and fully implement the strategies. As individuals and families, informed personal decision-making will be essential.

Salida High School. image courtesy of Heart of the Rockies Radio

And fifth, whether one is the parent of a school-age child or not, we should all consider the foundational functions of the schools in our county and resolve to adapt and flex our businesses and other organizations in concert with the changing educational modalities that the COVID-19 situation may require.

Towards the end of a recent discussion with Superintendent Blackburn, we reflected on the massive task of redesigning an entire school system to meet the realities of an uncertain future. The old adage about the successful consumption of an elephant requiring one bite at a time was cited and we chuckled at the idea of sharing recipes in an effort to make the task more palatable. Later that evening, though, another strategy came to mind: the way to eat an elephant is to invite the whole village over for dinner.

That is, in essence, how our community leadership roundtable group has approached the challenges of the last three months. And that is how we, as the Chaffee County community, will work through the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year.

Greg Felt

Chair of the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners