Students head back to school on August 26, in person

“The message is going slow to go fast”

By Kendra Walker

A new school year usually marks many reunions: kids reconnect with their friends, meet their teachers new and old, and reacquaint themselves with the familiar school hallways, while parents reunite with a normal routine once again (and celebrate a possible free moment or two).

This year, the Gunnison Watershed School District celebrates a different kind of reunion. After a summer away, as well as the entire spring quarantined from each other due to the coronavirus pandemic, students, teachers and staff return to school to reunite in person on Wednesday, August 26.

At Crested Butte Community School, 454 students make up the middle and high school enrollment numbers, up 23 from last year. Three hundred forty-four students are enrolled in the elementary school.

Across the district, 170 students have opted to enroll in the 100 percent online Pathways learning program option rather than go back in-person, about 8 percent of the district. At CBCS, 20 middle school students and seven high school students have opted to go 100 percent online. The elementary school has 37 students choosing the Pathways option.

The CBCS administration team told the Crested Butte News Tuesday that, while the campus is crowded, there is plenty of space to keep students safe and socially distanced. Principals Stephanie Niemi and Sally Hensley both said teachers and staff are prepared to handle the challenge and ready to get students back in the classrooms.

Superintendent Leslie Nichols and district nurse Leanne Schleisman were on KBUT to discuss the return to school and answer community questions about the district’s health and safety protocols, which directly correlate with the county’s COVID-19 risk assessments.

“We’re looking to the Coronameter to provide guidance in our decision making,” said Nichols. When asked if she has had any second thoughts about the bold move to go back to school in person, Nichols laughed and replied, “Sure. I’m not immune to all the headlines.

“I continue to absorb info as it comes our way but at the same time I feel very calm and grounded in what we’ve done over the summer,” she continued. She said working on the new health and safety protocols for the district with the county health department was “the most collaborative process I’ve ever been involved in,” giving a shout out to public health director Joni Reynolds for her instrumental leadership and support. “I’ve found a lot of reassurance in how this process has unfolded.”

Daily protocols in place

When asked if the new health and safety practices of mask wearing, sanitizing and health etiquette will actually be followed by students, and enforced, Schleisman noted “It all starts by leading from example. First and foremost, I make sure I’m following all these protocols with social distancing and masks. I think kids will follow their leaders for sure.”

“We mange challenges around behaviors all the time—the dress code comes to mind, the hat rule comes to mind,” said Nichols. “It doesn’t mean that these problems don’t continue to arise. But we’ll teach it, practice it, educate it.”

CBCS has added posters throughout the building reminding students to wear masks and wash their hands, and has factored in time at the beginning of each day to go over health protocols, including conducting temperature checks. “Each teacher has a classroom protocol checklist and they’ll go over it with the students every day,” said CBCS secondary principal Stephanie Niemi.

Additionally, students showing COVID-19 symptoms will be sent home to be monitored for 48 hours, and will be required to get tested if they are still symptomatic after the 48 hours in isolation. “It would be ideal if we could get all test results in 24 to 48 hours,” said Schleisman, recognizing the recent lag in test results in the county. “But I try not to get too stressed about that because I can’t really control it.”

“We’re learning more about the Public Health Department’s efforts to expand the valley’s testing in various ways,” said Nichols. “As those turnaround times and testing volume become improved it will absolutely help us.”

Emotional security

The district is also putting a bigger focus on addressing students’ and teachers’ emotional and social health this year, along with their physical health. “If we address those basic needs of physical safety and emotional security we’re going to have a successful year,” said CBCS elementary school principal Sally Hensley. “We lost some ground last year,” she said. “Students may be feeling a little anxious about returning to school—do they still belong, do they still have a place? We want to be really sensitive to that and be ready to help them feel comfortable and safe and have a sense of belonging. The message is ‘Going Slow to Go Fast.’”

And for the students opting to participate in 100 percent online learning this year, the district still plans to support those families as best it can, including providing case managers for each student to meet with, either in person or virtually. “We are going to do all we can to make [Pathways] the highest quality of learning possible,” said Nichols. “From the beginning that program has been grounded in the belief that relationships are critical for students.”

“It’s important that they continue to receive the medical care that they need because we won’t be seeing them in person,” added Schleisman. “We will still be checking in with these families.”

Nichols also confirmed that the Pathways students are evenly spread across the district and across grade levels, so class numbers are still fairly balanced. “It remains a fact we are over capacity in our Crested Butte school, but we are able to manage in the space we have,” she said. “We’re not hitting any super hot points in space.”

But Nichols noted that capacity is still a broad problem for CBCS and facility expansion is still very much on the horizon.

Looking at next week’s return, the district eagerly awaits its reunion with the student community and their families.

“I know it’s a big leap of faith for the community. I have a lot of empathy for where they are right now and how challenging it might feel,” said Hensley. “But we’re asking them to trust us and let us get started and help us with any tweaks and adjustments that are needed moving forward.”

“I’m excited to see kids. We’re so looking forward to having students back in school and I think really, if we all do our part, we can be successful,” said Niemi. “And if there’s any community that can do it, it’s Crested Butte.”

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