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What one Colorado superintendent has learned after a semester of school during COVID-19

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Posted at 3:59 PM, Jan 19, 2021

LOVELAND, Colo. — The Thompson School District in Larimer County is gradually bringing back in-person learning for all grades — elementary students returned following winter break, while middle schools were back to a hybrid model this week, and high schools will return to a hybrid model beginning next week.

The return to in-person classes followed several weeks of fully-remote learning after Thanksgiving. And throughout the entire school year, it's been a year of adjustments, not just for the Thompson district but for all Colorado schools.

We talked with Thompson's superintendent, Marc Schaffer, about what his district has learned after a full semester of school during COVID-19 — and what challenges the district is still trying to figure out.

Denver7: What are some things that you and your administrators at Thompson school district have learned so far to this point?

Schaffer: Well, one thing we know for sure is that teaching and learning still matters. Schools exist to educate students and students get one shot each year, at a grade level, and we want to make sure that counts. And so whether we're in a pandemic, or whether it is a typical, quote, unquote, school year, teaching and learning matter. So I would say that's first and foremost.

What we also know is that health and safety matters as well, especially during the pandemic. And so working in partnership with our local and county agencies, we have worked really hard to ensure that our learning spaces and environments are very safe. And that includes the social distancing, and the mask wearing and the cleaning and sanitizing of our facilities and all of those other things. We've learned that by taking those necessary precautions, we've been successful in being able to maintain and keep our buildings open. So that's really important.

Denver7: What was it like in October and early November when the numbers really started to surge across the country? What were those discussions like and the decisions that were made.

Schaffer: We know that overwhelmingly our community wanted kids in school -- we surveyed them. So we knew that coming from the summer that it was really, really important that we were able to maintain our schools open.

At the same time, we were balancing those needs with the health and safety needs of our community. And as we know that as we had surging case numbers, and we began to see increased numbers of quarantining and positivity rates, we had to start making some pretty tough decisions with regards to what we were going to be doing with maintaining our school opening or closures.

And we made the tough decision, as we emerged from Thanksgiving vacation, to transition [to fully remote] because we were using a hybrid model at the secondary level and fully in-person for Pre-K through five. We did move to fully virtual between Thanksgiving and winter vacation. And so again, it's balancing our health and safety needs of our community. Part of it was our challenge of just maintaining infrastructure of our district. We were noticing that not only were we having to quarantine larger amounts of our teachers and staff, but that includes our bus drivers and our food service workers and the other personnel that maintain the infrastructure of the district. It became harder and harder, just really to maintain a business as usual.

Denver7: What are a couple issues that you've noticed through one full semester that people may not realize that students are dealing with or educators are dealing with in the education process? What are some hurdles and challenges that people may not be aware of?

Schaffer: We are particularly mindful of the social-emotional toll that this has taken on our students. And so that is the underbelly of things that people aren't aware of. I mean, certainly, when people think of schools and education, they think of the reading, the writing, the education, the activities, the football games.

But the key thing that we are grappling with are the social-emotional needs and being able to support health and safety, and this manifests itself in many ways, not only how students are feeling about themselves, but we have issues of food insecurity. There's economic hardships with pandemic that has impacted our community.

So all of these compete for the attention and engagement of our students, and while students certainly want to learn, to be available to learn, it's the social-emotional toll that's placed on our students and families and staff that people may not be aware of. And that just creates additional barriers for us. Not insurmountable – certainly we address it, and we're mindful of it. But it does create additional complexities.

Denver7: Some districts have moved to a sliding grade scale or maybe more of a curve. Is Thompson doing anything in that regard? Or at least helping kids who may be falling behind because of the unprecedented circumstances?

Schaffer: So our assessment and grading has remained fairly consistent. You know, we want to make sure that we're providing feedback. I know that we have adjusted our graduation requirements, in light of the pandemic and some of the challenges in terms of how students earn credits.

We want to make sure that our programs have maintained the rigor of our practices and our programs and our graduation requirements. But at the same time, be mindful that we may need to look at adjusting things, anything from community service requirements to maybe extended deadlines or waiver of classes or electives. And so as we look at a system Pre-K through 12, our assessment and grading practices have remained consistent and flexible. I would say that there's a measure of flexibility that's inherent and necessary, so that students have every opportunity to be successful.

Denver7: Governor Polis has said repeatedly that schools are the safest place for students to be, for the most part. What do you think is the single best argument, or main argument, for that point? I'm sure you agree somewhat with that. What is your argument for why schools are safe for students to be in and have in person learning?

Schaffer: We are doing everything we can in our power to maintain safe environments. And I would say that as a system, our students and faculty are faring well with a pandemic, that as long as we're maintaining the social distancing, the hand sanitizing the mask wearing all of these pieces, in many ways, we're outperforming the county and the state.

I would say schools are outperforming in terms of having overall lower positivity rates, lower infection rates. I think our data confirms that, especially our younger students, Pre-K through five, are doing pretty well. And not we're not necessarily seeing mass positivity rates. We're seeing that our schools generally, with rigorous quarantining standards and now testing protocols, that we've had here in our district, all of these coalesce to create a safer environment.

And then the last thing I would note is, we're very excited about the vaccinations. We know that the state is working very hard and working with county and, and hospitals. Vaccinations are going to be really, really important. We see schools as necessary to be open.

Certainly we're mindful that there are groups in 1A, and now we're in 1B. But we want to make sure that we can get our staff and then our students vaccinated as soon as possible.