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While some Colorado districts, Denver Public Schools among them, are planning to reopen their schools online with a possible transition to on-site learning, Chaffee County’s two school districts remain optimistic about opening in August with in-person instruction.

That confidence is buoyed by a letter of support issued July 28 by both Buena Vista and Salida school superintendents, with endorsement from Chaffee County Commissioners and Chaffee County Director of Public Health Andrea Carlstrom.

The Buena Vista and Salida districts are planning to operate with a tiered approach that responds to local COVID-19 numbers. The current plan is to send students back to school in the so-called Green Zone, the most unrestricted of the tiers; this puts students back in class, but with substantial safety modifications to their daily routines.

Should the communities see significant upward movement in positive cases, there are plans in place to add a blend of online/on-site classes or, in the most extreme circumstances, total online learning. There are also online homebound services for students who have conditions that require them to work from home.

Chaffee County has seen 277 positive cases between March 14 and July 23. Extracting the outbreaks at Columbine Manor in Salida and at the Department of Corrections facility in Buena Vista, the community numbers total 34.

“We have been open for business and tourism, representing significant public health risk, for over 60 days,” the letter said. “Since opening, we have not seen a surge in new cases. Our hospital does not have anyone being treated for acute COVID-19 symptoms. The epidemiological metrics appear to be stable and within our community’s capacity to test, trace and treat.

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

“Both school districts have made sufficient improvements to practice the essential strategies of disease prevention, including frequent hand washing, mask-wearing, health screening, and maximum distancing possible. The districts have created active partnerships with the medical community to review their response protocols and offer support.”

As well, the letter supports the widely held outlook that COVID-19 contagion is lowest in younger, school-aged children.

“After reviewing the conditions, plans, and capacity of our school districts and communities, we support opening in a manner that best supports in-person instruction,” the letter concluded.

Buena Vista plans to start K-12 school Aug. 27, while Salida plans to open Aug. 19.

The new main entrance to the Buena Vista High School was still getting finishing touches the week prior to students’ return last winter, and construction has continued mostly on schedule on the new middle school .

In a weekly Zoom call with parents on July 27, Buena Vista Superintendent Lisa Yates said families would soon begin to see more specific messaging from individual schools.

Yates said the Aug. 27 and 28 half days represent a “really slow start to school” to help staff and students acclimate to the new normal of education and for the district to make adjustments for full-time classes.

Current plans call for each student to have a daily health screen before coming to school, Yates said. Using QR codes on their phones, parents will log in their students’ temperatures and check off a list of symptoms. A medical assistant will then analyze the daily data. There will be provisions to screen students who haven’t been checked at home.

Yates said that while buses will continue to be available, the district is asking that families use their own transportation as much as possible. Students on buses can expect to wear masks, siblings will sit together, and there are COVID-19-specific disinfection procedures for buses.

As well, students will mask up while in hallways. As of July 16, Colorado has in place a 30-day mask mandate for indoor public spaces, and if the mandate is renewed, those age 11 and older will be required to wear masks while in buildings.

Setting expectations is in order. Students can expect disruptions to art, choir, band, and athletics, said Yates, adding that there were already preparations for a disrupted semester in high school and middle school art due to school construction.

Yates also cautioned the parents’ group that “We are also living and working in the reality” that students — and staff — are going to be home more. If you have a common cold, you can expect to stay home. If someone in your household tests positive for COVID-19 or if you have been otherwise exposed, you can expect to stay home with assignments or online learning. There may be times when a school needs to close a classroom or a grade level for a day to allow for disinfecting.”

“And of course,” she added, “we’ll be ready for remote learning.”

Parents on the call expressed the oft- voiced frustration with online learning after students were ordered home in March.

“I don’t think the last quarter went at all well for my kids,” said one parent.

Yates said the new online services will reflect summer training for teachers, and that the district has better assessment methods for online studies. She admitted that online teaching and learning was tough everywhere when districts went into emergency mode to deliver education.

She said that while there is improved online programming for all grades, preschool through grade 2 remains the most difficult spot.

Yates confirmed that the district could change its plans in the next three weeks for in-person studies, but as of this week, it is “still on track to open at the green level.”

Ark Valley Voice reporters Tara Flanagan and Brooke Gilmore contributed to this news story.