The Bayfield School District loosened some of its COVID-19 precautions this week, a move that has raised safety concerns among some staff and community members.
The revised plan doubles the number of secondary school students in school buildings and the number of in-person instruction days each week. Schools, germ buckets even outside of the pandemic, have been at the center of debates about how to manage possible spread of the coronavirus.
The Bayfield community seems to be split over the new plan: It could help reverse dropping grades for some students, but it could also increase health risks heading into winter.
“Continuing the safety measures that we have in place are going to protect us regardless of the season,” said Kevin Aten, Bayfield superintendent.
Bayfield, Durango and Ignacio school districts launched similar public health plans this year to try to minimize spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic.
In the first quarter, all three districts have had to quarantine students because of exposure to people with COVID-19 or because of false alarms.
The new plan, called Reopening Version 3.0, brought all middle and high school students back for in-person instruction four days each week and ended the cohort model.
The school board unanimously approved the plan during a board meeting Oct. 13, and the district will review its COVID-19 management strategies again in December.
During the board meeting, parents, teachers and a student spoke out about the new plan.
Two teachers supported the plan, saying students need in-person instruction. The student also wanted to have in-person classes.
“I’m seeing a lot of kids really struggling,” said Amber Cook, a high school teacher. “The best place for them to be is at school.”
Seven parents and teachers were concerned about the plan, and one person was neutral.
They said cases in La Plata County and Colorado were still rising. With winter coming, people would have fewer opportunities to increase airflow by opening windows or being outside, both of which are believed to help reduce viral transmission.
“Social distancing guidelines have not changed from the state. We need to respect that as well,” said Josh Munson, a high school teacher. “It’s too premature to move everybody back into the building for the secondary school.”
Several people said parents and the community did not have a chance to contribute to the revised plan, and it lacked transparency.
“My concern isn’t so much with the decisions they ultimately make, it’s the process they use to get there,” said Ameryn Maestas in an interview after the meeting. “They didn’t involve the community; they didn’t involve the parents.”
Maestas, a former Bayfield teacher, left the district before the school year started because of its handling of the pandemic. Every family has different needs and comfort levels, she said, but bringing the full student body back was riskier for everyone.
“It sounds like maybe a step too far, given that there are rising case numbers in the county so far,” Maestas said. “In my opinion, the change was unjustified.”
The school board also reviewed teacher and staff member input from the middle and high schools during the meeting.
The high school report concluded that “staying in the cohort model is the best choice.” Of 26 middle school employees, about 81% said the school was not ready to return to full capacity.
Aten said he understood the concerns, but they seemed to come from a small group of people. Parents and community members overwhelmingly wanted to return to in-person instruction.
Student grades were dropping, which was a “game-changer” for the district, Aten said.
“What good is it if all the kids are failing?” he said. “Getting them back into school for more days will help get those grades up ... even if there are safety concerns.”
The district did not need to survey parents and community members because it received 530 survey responses on the reopening plan in August, Aten said.
The district plans to continue daily temperature checks for all students, heightened cleaning procedures, mandatory masks and other safety measures.
“There’s not as much physical distancing, but also that’s a recommendation and not a requirement,” he said.
Days into the new plan, Munson was happy to see students back in his small classes where social distancing is possible.
But in larger classes, with more than 20 students, social distancing was not possible, and the students are sitting close to each other, he said. Hallways were crowded.
He said it was the wrong time to change the plan.
“This feels unsafe,” he said in an email to The Durango Herald. “Essentially, the 3.0 plan doubles that chance of transmitting the virus to the entire school population and wider community.”