Less than a week after the Roaring Fork School District announced that its Aug. 17 back-to-school date will commence virtually, the Early Learning Center of Aspen — housed in the Yellow Brick schoolhouse on North Garmisch Street — sent an email to parents alerting them that the facility would be closed through Friday.
“Due to multiple illnesses inside the school that are all symptoms of COVID-19, we have been advised by [Pitkin County] Public Health to close through Friday,” a Tuesday email from ELC Executive Director Carrie Tippet reads.
However, that closure is largely to allow time for test results to return, Tippet said Wednesday, calling it a “precaution.”
While no ELC staff members have displayed symptoms reflective of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, several children and their respective parents enrolled in the program have, she noted.
Thanks to the partnership between the county and Aspen Valley Hospital, those families were tested Monday and Tuesday — but it takes several days for out-of-area laboratories to return results, thus the temporary facility closure.
“I will be in touch with Public Health over the next couple of days as test results come in and will be following all guidance from them,” Tippet wrote in her email to parents. “Because we do not have those results back and the symptomatic children ... are in various classrooms, please keep yourself healthy over the next few days, in hopes that this short closure will prevent any more spread.”
It’s a conundrum faced by nearly everyone in the era of COVID-19, but especially those who work in sectors working with young children: There is a significant overlap in the proverbial Venn diagram between the wide-ranging spectrum of symptoms affiliated with the coronavirus and the common cold.
“There’s also a cold going around,” Tippet acknowledged.
Still, better safe than sorry, she emphasized.
As for what happens if one of those test results comes back as a positive, Tippet said the ELC doesn’t have a concrete internal plan in place — rather, she and her staff will follow directives from the county.
In some ways, that makes things simpler, she noted.
“We’re not sure yet,” she said of the scenario. “We are doing whatever we’re told [by Pitkin County Public Health], which makes it very easy for families.”
Last week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in its guidelines to schools considering varying reopening options reported research suggesting that young children are at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 — and those who do are at a significantly lower risk of developing long-term complications or transmitting the disease, Roaring Fork School District Superintendent Rob Stein said Wednesday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the transition starts strategically at different age or grade levels,” he said.
On Friday, the district announced its plan to begin the 2020-21 school year utilizing a distance learning model — with several marked improvements based on lessons learned from the forced pivot to virtual classrooms via statewide mandates in the early wake of the pandemic.
“Initially, [there was] the notion of three models: distance, in-person and hybrid. But the hybrid model isn’t really a model — it’s really a transition [likely starting in late September],” Stein said. “Fewer students in the building and things like that, but what we’re really thinking about is, how do we transition into in-person learning?
“We will start early with targeted student populations, like those who cannot access learning remotely without some in-person services — students with special needs, therapeutic services. That’s the first step to transitioning into in-person learning.”
The next potential step, he continued, is likely early childhood education, given the latest available research.
Ultimately, Stein continued, all decisions from the school district will be rooted in science and data analyzations — the latter of which he hopes continues to come from county public health departments, rather than internal efforts by district staff.
That’s been particularly difficult in Basalt, which counts Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties among its jurisdictions.
“They’re responding to our request that they develop some kind of indicators that are simple — that any educator or parent could look at and see, ‘oh, this is the risk level.’ Eagle has a template of that that’s very helpful — getting all three counties to adopt that would be wonderful,” Stein said.
Generally speaking, he’d like to remain optimistic. But that optimism hinges on communities that comprise the school district maintaining ownership of their adherence to public health mandates in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“What puts on the brakes is when the risk level goes up, so it’s very important that we all work together as a community to do our parts to prevent or contain the spread to reduce the risk level — right now, it’s very high,” he said.