The Dolores School District will switch to an in-person and online hybrid learning model after the winter break, with extended Thanksgiving and winter breaks to reduce contact between students after family gatherings for the holidays.
The elementary and secondary schools will complete their fall curriculum lessons by Nov. 20, and an extended Thanksgiving break will take place between Nov. 23 and Dec. 4.
There will also be an extended winter break from Dec. 18 to Jan. 8.
“Extended breaks allow students to self-quarantine long enough to safely re-enter schools,” Superintendent Lis Richard said Tuesday at a school board meeting.
After the extended winter break, schools will transition to a hybrid learning model from Jan. 11 until Jan. 22.
Students with specific social-emotional needs, who rely on counseling services or who are at risk academically will be allowed to attend in-person classes four days per week, Richard said.
The district will have a separate meeting to determine which students are considered at risk. Parents who are concerned about their child can set up a meeting with the school principal to request a special consideration, Richard said.
“If we don’t have a criteria for who can do it, it gives the potential that there’s not much of a reduction in contact,” and the same number of students will attend school four days per week, said Secondary Principal Justin Schmitt.
Fridays will be used for teachers to check in with students individually, as well as professional development days for teachers.
Richard said district administration will consult with the Montezuma County Public Health Department in January to determine whether the hybrid model remains the best format.
The Teddy Bear Preschool in Dolores will not take the extended breaks because it also offers child care services, an essential service that can remain open and available to working parents during the pandemic’s restrictions on K-12 programs.
Richard said the preschool will institute heightened safety precautions, and children ages 3 through 5 will be required to wear masks under Colorado law.
The legal age that a child can be left alone is 12 and above, so the Dolores School District will also provide child care services for children under those ages.
How the hybrid model worksThe district will be divided into two groups: Cohort A and Cohort B. Students with last names that start with the letters A-L are in Cohort A, and students with last names that start with the letters M-Z are in Cohort B.
Cohort A will go to school in-person on Mondays and Wednesdays, and Cohort B will go to school in-person on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It is mandatory that students wear face masks or shields during their in-person instruction, otherwise they will be sent home, Richard said. If it becomes a long-term problem, those students will have to transition to online learning.
Not wearing a mask is a “hazard to other students and staff,” Richard said.
The Dolores School Board unanimously approved the plan Tuesday evening, after an initial discussion last week on how to balance the critical service of education with the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Montezuma County.
Officials from the Montezuma County Public Health Department and Southwest Memorial Hospital sent letters to the school districts when case numbers started to rise in the county, asking them to consider transitioning to online learning between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Small group and family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas are likely to increase the spread of COVID-19, as different households mix for meals that can’t be consumed with masks on, according to Kent Aiken, Southwest Memorial’s chief of medicine and a physician with the county health department.
Parents and teachers voice their opinionsParents in the district shared personal accounts of the harm online learning can cause students, especially younger students, at last week’s school board meeting.
Tiffany Nichols, a caseworker at Montezuma County Child Protective Services, said students would still gather at places like the Piñon Project and church services if they were sent home for online learning while their parents were working.
Mental health issues rise during school closures because of the isolation, Nichols said. “School is a safe place for them,” she said.
Teachers often are the first to detect and report cases of child abuse or neglect.
Jori Smeth opened up about her own son’s struggle with suicidal thoughts, and her gratitude that he reached out to a teacher who was able to connect him with the help he needed.
But the school board also wanted input from teachers before making the final decision.
Richard developed and organized a survey that went to teachers and support staff throughout the district, asking what their preferred method of teaching was after the holiday season.
In the secondary school, 28 of 32 teachers completed the survey. Of them, 39.3% said they wanted to continue in-person learning, 35.7% said they wanted to start a hybrid model and 21.4% said they wanted to go entirely online.
In the elementary school, 25 of 28 teachers completed the survey. Of those respondents, 45% said they wanted to continue in-person learning, 32% said they wanted a hybrid model and 16% said they wanted to go online.
Given the split responses, the hybrid model is a good compromise for staff, Richard said.
“This plan has done a nice job of meeting the needs of all students,” board member Clay Tallmadge said.
What happens if Montezuma County goes to Level Red?Montezuma County moved to the more severe Level Orange on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 risk assessment dial Nov. 16.
The decision is the result of a steady increase in new cases in recent weeks.
La Plata County will shift to Level Red on Friday, and Bobbi Lock, director of the Montezuma County Public Health Department, said Montezuma County is probably not far behind.
If Montezuma County enters Level Red or the newer “extreme risk” Level Purple, hybrid models are still allowed, and preschool through fifth grade can attend school in-person.
The governor’s office recently classified education as an essential service during the pandemic, but the governor can also mandate specific restrictions for counties as they enter new levels, Richard said. “It’s a moving target right now.”