After the coronavirus upended spring semesters and graduation ceremonies, the Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 School District has been working to safely reintroduce students and staff to the classroom this fall.
The district shared its reopening plans with the public in a virtual town hall on July 16, with more virtual Q&A’s planned. Administrators acknowledged that plans are evolving as state and local guidance changes, with guidance changing even in the hours prior to the town hall when Gov. Jared Polis announced a mask mandate.
However, as the plans currently stand, the district expects to have in-person instruction when classes resume in August. This also includes back-up plans for temporary online learning in the event of a local outbreak of coronavirus cases. Parents also have the option to enroll students in online-only instruction, which requires commitment for at least the first semester. The district will also provide computers for enrolled students.
KSJD spoke with teachers in the district to share how they feel about what the fall will look like for students and staff.
Relieving parents and teachers
As classes quickly moved online in the spring, teachers had to adapt to a new type of instruction. Meanwhile, parents suddenly had kids back at home, some without reliable internet or child care.
“A lot of parents can not afford that burden,” said Matthew Johnson, who starts this fall in special education at the Montezuma-Cortez Middle School. He was a long-term substitute teacher for the past three years.
Johnson supports the return of in-person education while understanding its risks.
“There are a lot of other skills involved with going into a classroom,” he said, adding that an emotional connection is crucial to how students learn. “That is especially true in special education.”
While the district is working on improving rural internet access through public hotspots, the district’s effort doesn’t fully address the technology gap, as Charles “Cody” Childers described it. Childers, a union member through the Colorado Education Association, will start teaching English language arts at the Montezuma-Cortez High School this fall. He taught at the middle school for three years.
Public hotspots provide connectivity but still leave transportation and child care as another factor for parents to consider, Childers explained.
In the classroom, teachers will also be responsible for enforcing health requirements, like facial coverings. One elementary school teacher, who requested to remain anonymous, told KSJD she’s not too concerned about students complying with the changes after what she saw in an unusual spring semester.
“The kids were really dedicated to keeping each other safe,” she said, adding that she also expects to buy back-up masks and cleaning supplies for her classroom.
“We want nothing more than to be back in the classroom with our kids. We just want it to be safe.”
Childers said his classroom will also require masks and wants to see the practice well-regulated between classrooms. Johnson sees enforcement of health safety requirements as an extension of the classroom management skills already expected of teachers, but with much higher risks.
“The consequence of failure is much higher,” Johnson said. “A kid not sitting down in their seat isn’t going to kill a teacher down the hall.”
Unresolved and underfunded issues
The effects of tightened funding from the state and the failure of local mill levy ballot measures have worsened with the expectations set for a fall semester set during a pandemic. All three teachers don’t put the school district at fault for any shortcoming of resources, but they do foresee where they will be further stretched.
“In the best of times, we’re working with a shoestring budget,” Childers said, who has been vocal against state budget cuts.
If a student or staff member gets infected with the virus and dies, for example, counseling needs for the resulting trauma will likely not be met. The anxiety for teachers also extends to the wellbeing of the family of a student.
“I would have trouble forgiving myself if I caught it and gave it to a kid who then brought it home,” said the elementary school teacher. She added that some of her students have trouble with family life and relationships and, “I can’t imagine compounding that with severe illness or possibly death.”
In a school year where teachers have to make these adjustments - both emotionally and with their instruction - Childers would still like to see the district and the state reconsider the necessity of standardized testing. He said it’s not fair to compare the performance of students and staff to previous, regular school years.
Childers also wants patience from the community and patience between teachers, parents, and administrators as everyone navigates a different classroom.
“When we reenter the classrooms in the fall, we’re going to do the best we can with what we have,” Childers said. “Because that’s our job. We’re teachers. We do whatever we need to do.”