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Like many states, Colorado schools have handled their COVID-19 pandemic preparations and precautions locally, with each district making its own plans based on local and state guidelines and protocols. In the Upper Arkansas River Valley, schools in Salida, Buena Vista, and Leadville all remain committed to in-person education, nutritional support, and social and emotional resources since the start of their first full semester in the face of the pandemic. But each one appears to have taken a different path to achieve in-person connection.

Leadville has operated on a hybrid system from the beginning, using an every-other-day model. They partnered with the 100 Elk Outdoor Center, switching between the 100 Elk facility and their classroom in cohorts.

“There was a significant need on many sides for our students, related to social-emotional support, as well as just the needs of the community related to supporting their kids on those days,” says Bethany Massey, Superintendent of the Lake County School District.

The new Buena Vista Middle and High School was just completed in November, only slightly behind schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Tara Flanagan.

Now, the district continues running on an every-other-day model with their elementary school, and a split-day model with their intermediate school, where students split their day between their teacher and a facilitator for social-emotional modules, classwork, and activity periods with community partners.

Farther south, Buena Vista and Salida schools run full in-person learning, implementing targeted quarantining when needed, mandated mask-wearing. Buena Vista installed a new air filter system in its elementary school

Lisa Yates, Superintendent of Buena Vista Schools, says one of the biggest difficulties is keeping students engaged when they do have to go remote. “There’s always a percentage of students that we cannot access when they are home,” Yates says. “It’s not for lack of a device, or because they don’t have internet access. It’s other factors. I think it’s going to take us time to understand what all of those are to see if there’s anything else we can do.”

For Yates, in-person learning can’t be replicated. “You can’t do your science labs in the same way,” she says. “Our whole system is built on highly engaging activities, and it gets sacrificed.” Teachers have to work to ensure that virtual assessments are fair and accurate, and virtual learning often requires more mental energy for students in order to remain focused, as well as one-on-one support for students who have been out longer than two weeks.

“Learning is social,” Yates says, “Our staff has done an incredible job of trying to recreate that social connection through a virtual platform, but it’s just not the same.”

Longfellow Elementary. Photo by Jan Wondra

Superintendent David Blackburn of Salida Schools says they originally attempted a hybrid approach similar to Leadville. “And that didn’t work,” he says, “because the way quarantine exposures intermingle, we just had too many teachers we lost too quickly.”

Schools often don’t know about changes to local protocols until the last minute, which can make it hard to plan. Running in-person classes requires a certain number of teachers in the building. They found that quarantine orders pulled away more teachers than they’d expected. “And so that’s what we’re focused on right now,” Blackburn says, “trying to think of new strategies that would allow us to have fewer people quarantine through exposures.”

They didn’t originally think targeted quarantining would work, but they have seen widespread positive participation from local families and students. “Everyone’s been very compliant because everyone knows that we’re trying to do in-person as much as possible,” Blackburn says.“There’s a lot of gratitude to teachers and families for giving it everything they could, so that’s a success.”

Leadville and Buena Vista schools have also received positive feedback on their approaches for their consistency and decreased class sizes.

“Our county’s approach to prioritizing schools being open has been extremely helpful,” says Yates. “It’s so hard to lay your head on the pillow at night, as a parent, or as a student, or a staff member, and think, ‘what’s tomorrow going to be?’”

“We did a listening tour of our community partners, of our stakeholders, of our parents and students recently,” Massey explained. “And one of the pieces of feedback we heard resoundingly, as a positive from what we’ve been doing this semester, has been the small class sizes that people have felt have been an instructional benefit for their children.”

However, the schools have also had to adjust to continue meeting other needs, including nutritional needs. Both Leadville and Buena Vista offer three meals a day for their students, supplementing at-home nutrition.

“Schools also serve a community for purposes beyond academics. They are resources for nutrition and health needs. Whenever that shifts to remote, that access gets further and further away,” Yates explains. “Any student who is remote learning for any reason, during this fall, we provide breakfast and lunch for them. They don’t have to come to get it, but it is available.”

Leadville students have received breakfast, lunch, and a take-home dinner each day throughout all levels of the pandemic and summer break. When elementary students briefly shifted to “Red” Level during November, which sent them fully remote for two weeks, staff distributed meal packs from cars.

Additionally, the schools have had to rethink their approach to handling students’ mental health needs.

“Being disconnected is really unhealthy for lots of people,” says Blackburn. “That doesn’t come as a surprise, and yet that stays at the top of our concern list. So we’re trying to do more in-person because we’re finding it healthier and safer for people to be in person.”

2nd Day Support Program for Lake County School District, organized with 100 Elks Outdoor Center. Alijah Rivera working on the Giants Ladder activity earlier this fall.Photo by Rachael LePoidevin.

In Leadville, students’ “crew” meetings with classmates “have allowed for targeted conversations based on what the staff in the building are identifying as needs to be addressed during that time,” Massey says. Buena Vista schools have partnered with Solvista Health to offer in-person and virtual counseling for students.

As the semester comes to a close, all three districts have voiced a desire to keep schools running.

“As we move forward with living with COVID-19, we need to prioritize school,” Yates said. “It’s complex and at the same time very worth figuring out, and I’m anxious to see how CDPHP and the CDC can work together on some of the challenges that have caused us to go remote….I’m really eager to see how we might be able to achieve that idea of safety and school at the same time.”

Massey expects Leadville’s hybrid model to continue. “Wanting to be responsive and take action toward the impacts of the pandemic while still providing instructional benefits…has been another piece that’s been a challenge to balance,” Massey says. The district is also looking at how to increase internet accessibility for those students who need it. “But so far, there’s been resounding support of what we’re currently doing in that hybrid mode.”

“We know that it’s essential for kids’ mental health to be out and engaged,” Blackburn says. “So we’re trying to honor that need, and also make sure that we don’t put in-person instruction at risk.”

Blackburn says he feels Salida’s community has and will continue to carry their success. “I’ve been deeply thankful to be in a small community that’s truly a community and where there’s togetherness. I think that has been a layer protection as well.”