Mesa County Public Schools Will Let Parents Choose Between In-Person Or Remote Learning When Classes Begin In August

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Justin Whiteford teaches his comparative religions class at Grand Junction High School on Monday, April 17, 2017.

School will begin for Mesa County students on Aug. 17 for grades 1-12 and on Aug. 19 for kindergartners.

It has risks, but it’s something the district is willing to try.

Mesa County Valley School District 51 will provide families two options: either do 5-day in-person learning with various social distancing measures, or opt-out and continue doing remote learning. These are two separate curriculums. To do this, the district is matching online classes with teachers who can’t teach in person for medical reasons.

The plan was unveiled to the school board Tuesday night.  

At this time, there is no deadline for families to register for the online program. Communications Specialist Catherine Foster said that families can choose to switch, but that option will likely only be available at the end of quarters because the two curriculums differ with content and pacing.

Foster said the push for re-opening is about the support schools provide to students. 

“it's so much more than just academics, it's social and emotional schools, it's access to healthy meals and exercise,” Foster said. “It’s different kinds of mental health support that they may not get at home. So that was certainly a huge consideration of ours in deciding to go in-person or at least have that option.” 

For in-person instruction, the rules vary by grade level but there are some constants. Under the plan, students and staff will all get daily symptom screenings. These screenings must be done by a parent or student self-reporting. Students who do not report will need to get a health assistant at the school to screen them as soon as possible. Additional health assistants will be placed in every school. 

Students will be taught mainly in cohorts throughout the school day so they have the least amount of contact possible with different people. All common areas will be kept at half-capacity or capped at 175 people, depending on which is smaller.

While masks are required for middle and high school students, they are only “encouraged” for elementary school children. However, there are some cases when masks will be required, including when students enter and exit buildings, when they're in the hallway, when students are not within their designated cohort, and when they're riding the bus.

The district will make exemptions to the mask rule for medical reasons. Masks are not required when students are outdoors. All teachers and staff in elementary, middle and high schools must wear masks.

The reopening plan adheres to reopening guidelines set by Mesa County Public Health and officials from the agency helped craft the re-opening plan. It also adheres mostly to the guidelines of the Center of Disease Control, Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The school district does not have an official plan for what exactly happens if COVID-19 cannot be contained. There also isn’t a threshold for when D51 would close schools again, but the district will continue to work with guidance and cooperation with Mesa County Public Health. Foster said the district would figure out a way to make all students go back to remote learning, but there isn’t a written plan for that yet.

Heidi Dragoo, the epidemiology program manager at MCPH, said there has been an uptick in local disease spread in the county. There are 259 reported cases in the county, and she said about a quarter of those have been reported within the last two weeks.

“Some of that has been propagated as folks are getting together over holiday weekends, doing a little bit more travel, but basically we're seeing more disease spread in our community than we were just even like a month ago,” she said. 

Dragoo also acknowledges that no activities, including reopening schools, are going to be completely safe.

“We are anticipating that we will see cases and disease spread in schools,” Dragoo said. “Our goal is to mitigate those risks and reduce the likelihood of transmission to the best extent possible.”

MCPH is boosting up its local disease investigation and contract tracing team to prepare for schools opening, Dragoo said. D51’s plan says the district will notify families within the cohort of the symptomatic or COVID-positive student or staff member. It is possible that the district will require the cohort to then quarantine. MCPH will do contact tracing when a positive case is confirmed.

Rick Peterson, the president of the Mesa County Education Association, said the teachers union is continuing to have ongoing conversations with the district. He said some of his members are worried about the lack of detail when describing cohorts. 

“In some cases, a cohort could be a very small group but it sounds like it’s a rather larger group,” Peterson said. “How big can a cohort be before it loses effectiveness?” 

In the D51 plan, a cohort is used to both describe a classroom and an entire grade level. 

Ultimately, no one knows what will happen until the district opens and the plan is subject to be altered based on new discoveries or hiccups that may happen.

“I encourage families and parents to really weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both before making that decision,” Dragoo said.