St. Vrain Valley elementary students head back to school today as the district kicks off its staggered approach to the return of in-person learning.
Elementary students will return to in-person learning four days per week and Fridays will be independent learning days.
Beginning Jan. 11, middle school students will return to the hybrid learning schedule with two days of in-person learning, two days of online learning and independent learning on Fridays. They will be followed by high school students, who will start a hybrid schedule on Jan. 19.
The district did not disclose how many students are returning to school and how many will continue learning remotely. It did, however, say the numbers it expects today are similar to what it saw at the start of the first semester before the switch back to fully remote learning in November, which was prompted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
For Veronica Arredondo, a Longmont resident and mother of three, in-person learning comes as a joy for her second and third graders and as a relief for her.
“My son is happy to be going back, he loves school, he loves being around other kids. Things are not the same as before, but he is happy to go back,” she said.
Arredondo’s son, Ian, 9, recently received an individualized education plan, or IEP, because he requires additional support after an illness as a kindergartner kept him out of school for more than a year.
Throughout the pandemic, he has struggled to remain engaged and focused during remote learning, Arredondo said, adding she believes in-person learning provides the necessary support for him to be successful.
“Everything has been difficult during this time because he needs more help, he wears glasses, and a hearing aid, and he has trouble with the tablet,” she said. “I have to be with him almost the entire time because I need to help him with his readings as well as explain things to him, at the same time I have to be there for my daughter who is in second grade, and then I have my little one as well (who is 3 years old), it’s really difficult.”
In addition to elementary students, all students with IEPs can attend school in person four days per week, according to Kerri McDermid, chief communications and global impact officer at the district.
“Schools will continue to work with families individually to provide opportunities to support their student's well-being and academic success,” she said.
Fred Hobbs, director of public relations at Imagine Colorado, a nonprofit that provides services to people with developmental, cognitive and physical challenges across the state, said COVID has added a challenge for individuals with disabilities, a population that has long been hidden from the community.
“Full inclusion means participating at the same level and in the same ways as everyone else,” he said. “We believe that students with special needs should be allowed the opportunity to engage in school in the same ways as their peers, regardless of ability or disability.”
Most of the 32,000 students in the district reported to online classes at the start of the fall semester to then switch to a hybrid model in early October and then again to fully remote after Thanksgiving break.
In mid-November, Gov. Jared Polis announced the creation of a back-to-school task force, a group of parents, teachers, superintendents, school board members and health officials, charged with crafting a plan to support school districts in offering as much uninterrupted in-person learning as possible.
“We know that for many kids, and also frankly for many teachers, the classroom is one of the safest places,” Polis said during a Nov. 25 news conference. “We would love to provide more predictability to teachers, parents and families as well as make sure that kids get the education they need across our state.”
Numerous studies have shown that young children seem to be less susceptible to COVID-19 and schools are not only not the primary drivers of community transmission but can prevent transmission even when community rates are high, according to the COVID-19 Strategies for Schools report by the Colorado Health Institute.
St. Vrain Valley School District’s COVID-19 dashboard seems to support that, too, with elementary schools having some of the lowest cumulative case totals among not only students but staff, too.
English learners and those whose parents speak languages other than English also benefit from in-person learning, according to Damary Yanes, school readiness coordinator in Longmont for Engaged Latino Parents Advancing School Outcomes, or ELPASO, an organization dedicated to helping Latino parents help their children succeed.
“Many parents are happy that their kids are going back to school, it’s an opportunity for them to get out, allows kids to socialize, which is something they need, and it also helps the parents,” she said. “There are parents who are frustrated because they do not understand the apps … especially parents with kids in kindergarten and first grade … there is a language barrier as well as a technology barrier.”
She acknowledges, however, there are parents who are still hesitant to go back to school.
“I have heard from some people that they are worried about going back to the schools, they are afraid of their kids getting infected,” she said. “They have only had the experience of being in school a couple of days a week and now with all of the kids back in school they don’t know what kind of care other families have at home, what other families are doing.”
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the nearly 40,000-member Colorado Education Association, said Tuesday that teachers are still as nervous about returning to in-person learning, as they were when the school year began.
"There is still some trepidation, angst and anxiety for our members," Baca-Oehlert said. They are hopeful school districts and communities are following strict COVID-19 guidelines — including mask wearing and social distancing — to ensure students and staff members will be safe in school buildings, she said.
The arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine is good news, but most Colorado teachers won't be eligible for a shot until late February or early March.
"The vaccine is not really at play for most teachers who are getting back to in-person learning for this month," Baca-Oehlert said.
In addition to concerns about the risk of infection, some parents have chosen to remain in remote learning to provide consistency in their children's education as is the case for Rachel Foster, a stay-at-home mother of two and a certified elementary school teacher.
“We decided to choose LaunchEd (for our second grader and kindergartner) this year because we wanted to have consistency in the educational programs for this year,” she said via Facebook messenger. “We figured that this school year was going to be rocky and we felt it was better for the kids to know what to expect each day instead of wondering, ‘will I be going to school in person today?’”
While Foster considered homeschooling as a potential option when researching programs for the school year, she said she believes the schedule and educational program offered through LaunchED will help ensure her children will stay on track to eventually return to in-person learning.
“All of the back and forth of virtual versus in-person has been hard for them and our children see that. They often comment that they are glad they don't have to worry about it,” she said. “Our kids understand that this is just how school is going (to be) this year.”