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Rural Colorado communities vow to keep their schools open, even as coronavirus cases rise

Without evidence of the virus spreading in their schools, some districts will continue in-person learning. Their leaders worry what will happen to kids if they don’t.

The letter S, for Sanford, Colorado, decorates Little Flat Top Mountain in Conejos County. The town is named for Silas Sanford Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Mormon Church. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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ALAMOSA — Many of Sanford School District 6J’s 355 students have boomeranged between classes at school and home this fall, shuffled out of classrooms like their peers across the state because of a sudden need to quarantine.

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But the district is taking a stand as it rides out the last few weeks of the first semester, committing to in-person learning even if coronavirus cases in Conejos County surge enough to place the county in level red — signifying a severe risk — on the state’s COVID-19 dial dashboard. That dashboard tracks the degree at which the virus is spreading county by county.

For communities rated at level red, state guidance recommends that high school students attend school through a hybrid approach or remotely. It offers more flexibility for middle schoolers, with suggested options including in-person, hybrid and remote learning. The guidance urges schools to keep preschoolers through fifth graders in the classroom, though it acknowledges that schools may need to educate those students in a hybrid or remote fashion.

That emphasis on in-person learning for Colorado’s youngest students reflects Gov. Jared Polis’ firm belief that schools need to keep classrooms open as much as possible for their early learners — a message he has repeated throughout the fall semester. 

As of Thursday evening, Conejos County remained in the orange level, one step below red.

Sunset near Las Sauces, Colorado in Conejos County on Nov. 19, 2020. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Superintendent Kevin Edgar said that should his San Luis Valley district face an exposure or outbreak, it would follow all necessary protocols and transition back into remote learning as directed by public health guidance. 

“The data is still in the favor of our school right now,” Edgar said. “We do not know of any exposure that has led to a COVID case because of an exposure of our school.”

Like so many of his counterparts in Colorado’s 177 other school districts, Edgar worries about the toll remote learning has taken on his students. He knows some kids chose to disengage in remote learning, and that in-person instruction is critical to students’ mental health.

“Without being back in school, they are suffering,” Edgar said. “I have high school students telling me, ‘We hope to stay in school. This is really starting to bother us. We need to be in school.’”

Other rural districts are setting a similar tone for the foreseeable future. As of Thursday evening, just over half of Colorado’s 64 counties were in red-level status. Michelle Murphy, executive director of Colorado Rural Alliance, which represents 146 districts, said many schools in red-zone counties are working with their local health officials to figure out how to keep kids in the classroom.

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Barring any significant changes in local health circumstances, Murphy anticipates that those districts will start the second semester in January in the classroom.

“Kids need to be in school,” Murphy said. “That’s where the real learning and socializing takes place.” 

With smaller numbers of students, social distancing is easier to accomplish in rural districts, Murphy added. That small scale helps districts like Sanford know their student populations well, which also helps in managing in-person learning.

Murphy also hears a common theme mentioned across rural communities: Students are safer in schools, where they’re largely compliant with health and safety measures like social distancing and wearing masks.

Even though educators can’t see students’ faces and connect with them in the way they’re used to, the value of having them in the classroom is worth the extra work required to keep them safe, Murphy said.

In Alamosa, Interim Superintendent Marsha Cody said the school district has rethought where students are safest. Students who get to see each other and socialize at school are safer than those congregating on their own, without taking precautions like masks.

Alamosa School District’s administration building, pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The rural Colorado district has close to 2,150 students. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“For many of our students, school is the safest place because they’re not congregating on their own,” she said, adding “and they’re socializing with health precautions when they’re in school.”

Edgar noted how limited his district is in keeping students from mixing outside of classtime, explaining that cohorts of students regularly intermingle when they’re not in class.

“We’re doing the best we can here,” he said, adding that teenagers need a social life and, as much as possible, need to be involved in the activities, clubs and sports that anchored a big part of their lives before the pandemic.

Alamosa School District, which has close to 2,150 students, is currently in a hybrid mode of learning until winter break as Alamosa County is categorized in the state’s red level. But even if the southern Colorado county remains in the red when school resumes in January, the district will return to in-person learning Monday through Thursday, Cody said. Fridays will be remote-learning days, with teachers providing two hours of support to students over Zoom.

Cody acknowledged the recommendations from the state, but said they’re just that — recommendations. Her community has assessed how well those suggestions fit its circumstances and decided that for its students’ mental health, academic achievement and long-term health, in-person learning is the best approach.

“Almost a loss of hope”

Each of the two times that Sanford School District has had to move cohorts of students to remote learning, some haven’t shown up for online classes, Edgar said. That not only sets students behind, but also complicates the jobs of teachers.

When students return to classrooms after several days without in-person instruction, teachers have to work hard to catch them up while continuing to build on the learning of those students who remained engaged during remote instruction.

Edgar stressed that one reason in-person learning is more effective is the relationship between teachers and students and the ability for educators to watch students as they learn and communicate with them face to face.

That can’t happen as smoothly in a remote setting, which inhibits how well a teacher can pick up on whether a student is having a hard time with a lesson and why they’re struggling, Edgar said.

Among the lessons that Cody has gleaned from schooling during the pandemic: how key relationships are to student success.

“Relationships matter,” she said. “Teachers matter. And learning without relationships, learning without teachers is extremely difficult, if not impossible for some students.”

That relationship can be easily forgotten when a student is home alone, Cody said.

As the school year has continued to be disrupted by the pandemic — some Alamosa students have experienced in-person, hybrid and remote learning in the last few months — the interim superintendent has grown more worried about the rising number of disengaged students and increasing number of failing students.

“That has been stark,” Cody said.

She also has concerns about a much broader group of her students when it comes to their social-emotional health, including kids who live in stable homes and have caring adults to support them.

Students, Cody said, are finding themselves asking a big question: Is this really important?

Across the board, she said, there’s “almost a loss of hope.”


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