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Even with St. Vrain Valley safety plan in place, 'fear of the unknown' lingers as back-to-school date nears

District assurances still aren’t quelling the dread many teachers and school staff members are feeling as the new school year approaches, said Susie Hidalgo-Fahring, a Longmont City Council member who will teach third grade this year at Indian Peaks Elementary.
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

St. Vrain Valley School District teachers are getting the equipment and supplies they need to stave off the COVID-19 virus when classes begin Aug. 18, according to school officials.

Teachers also can ask to teach online if they feel they will put themselves at risk in the classroom. Free coronavirus tests offering quick results will be available as well, said Superintendent Don Haddad.  

But all the assurances still aren’t quelling the dread many teachers and school staff members are feeling as the new school year approaches, said Susie Hidalgo-Fahring, who will teach third grade this year at Indian Peaks Elementary.

“This is what many educators are acknowledging, maybe for the very first time,” said Hildalgo-Fahring, who is also vice president of the St. Vrain Valley Education Association. “And that is fear, fear of the unknown.”

Hidalgo-Fahring, a member of Longmont City Council, said last weekend COVID-19 inspired anxiety finally caught up with her.

“I am scared,” she said. “I broke down. Since March, I’ve been in my city council capacity and in my association capacity helping educators and others trying to navigate the COVID crisis. And then it just hit me.”

Hidalgo-Fahring also has a son with autism and is weighing putting him in an in-person classroom or allowing him to learn in the district’s new online program.

Other parents are struggling with the same issues and she hears from them daily. She also gets comments from teachers who are not happy with how the school district is handling problems linked to COVID-19.

“A lot of it is fear and frustration,” Hidalgo-Fahring said. “I try to understand where it is directed at … and overwhelmingly people seem frustrated with our national response.”

“If we had a national coordinated response,” she said, “I am convinced we could open schools with assurances of safety. But we are just not there yet.”

She gives high marks to St. Vrain officials who worked closely with local and state health officials to come up with a hybrid approach to opening up schools. Most K-12 students will get a mix of in-person and online learning.

Masks will be mandatory and social distancing requirements will be in every building.

The district also collaborated with the teacher association to assure instructors and other staff members will be kept from harm during the spread, Hidalgo-Fahring said.

Haddad told the school board Wednesday that teachers will have access to face shields and gowns for close-in classroom work. Hand sanitizer also will be in every building when classes begin, Haddad said.

Buildings and classrooms will be hard-scrubbed by extra cleaning crews while teachers with pre-existing conditions or other health problems can opt to work as instructors for the online program, Haddad said. 

Because classes will rotate between online and in-house instruction, class sizes will be cut in half to reduce exposure risks, school officials said. The district also is spending $3 million to hire more instructors and support personnel to help reduce class sizes. 

To keep teachers healthy and reduce risk in classrooms, the district is working to provide  access to two COVID-19 tests every month at no cost, Haddad told the school board. 

Test results will be available within 48 hours, he said.

Haddad warned the district’s plans can change rapidly. 

“These are the plans we have today,” he said. “If this virus continues to evolve, we may have to pivot and go with a different plan.”

Jeff Zayach, executive director of the Boulder County Public Health, told school board members Wednesday that St. Vrain Valley’s hybrid, rotating class schedule reduces fears of a COVID-19 spread.

“Creating spaces with social distancing in mind and splitting the grades make great sense,” Zayach said. 

Still, he said, teachers will feel the stress of keeping classes COVID-free. “But at least, you are reducing the risk.”

So far, St. Vrain is not exhibiting the same fissures as in Jefferson County, where the teacher association wants the school district to push back in-person learning for another year. 

“I think the problem in Jefferson County is that they had no teacher voices at the start of the process to reopen schools,” Hidalgo-Fahring said. “So what I’ve seen in other places, I think we are in a pretty good place in St. Vrain.”