New Colorado back-to-school work group has first meeting, commits to collaboration

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DENVER – A new back-to-school working group that was announced by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis Tuesday held its first meeting Wednesday as it works to develop plans to get as many students as possible back to in-person learning in January.

The group is comprised of teachers, superintendents, school board officials, public health officials and parents who are tasked with finding pieces of models that have worked for schools and districts in helping keep more students learning at school – which education leaders widely agree is the best environment for Colorado students to learn.

The working group will meet with Gov. Polis and Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, along with public health officials, as they develop plans in the coming weeks.

Several members of the group spoke alongside Polis in a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon about the group’s first meeting, in which members discussed their task at hand and started identifying some protocols that could work, they said.

The work will build off even more tools released by the Colorado Department of Public Health that districts and schools can use to determine quarantine needs for students and staff, which is now standardized no matter what response phase a county is in.

Dr. Heath Harmon, a member of the group and the Eagle County Public Health Director, said that members agreed at Wednesday’s meeting that in-person learning at schools were vital to local communities, to students’ education and social behaviors and said they had found common visions already after one meeting.

Rebecca Holmes of the Colorado Education Initiative said they will take dozens of examples from schools and districts across the state that have been successful since the spring in working to formulate plans to re-open schools next semester that moved to remote learning this semester.

Holmes said the group’s top focus would be on getting younger students back into classrooms, saying that younger students – particularly those in kindergarten through 2nd grade – struggle the most trying to learn developmental, math, and reading skills remotely.

“It’s really a question of how people can be empowered to make the right decision to minimize the risk. And for many families, a safe public school environment in the classroom is one of the safest places their kids can be,” Polis said during the news conference.

Harmon said public health and education officials had watched over the past months the differences in schools that adhere to the layers of protocols outlined by the state and districts and those that have not, which has led to more quarantines and remote learning.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, said another of the tasks the group will have to find answers for is addressing the state’s substitute teacher shortage and dealing with teacher and staff quarantines without running out of adults to teach students.

And Harmon said that families should be thinking now about their own quarantine methods once in-person learning returns so kids or teachers are not going to school while contagious with the virus – whether they are symptomatic or not – which she said was something that had led to the returns to in-person learning at times this fall.

The governor, educators and public health officials all agreed that having a strong collaborative effort between districts, local governments, teachers, public health officials and families of students would be “critical” to developing trust in the plans the group will create and to keeping students learning at school in 2021.

“In places where there is true collaboration between the district, educators, parents and public health departments, that is where we see things going well,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We need to encourage and incentivize communication and collaboration going forward.”

Members of the task force include:

· Diedre Pilch, Greeley-Evans D-6 Superintendent
· Leslie Nichols, Gunnison Watershed School District Superintendent
· Amie Baca-Oehlert, Teacher and CEA President
· Rebecca Holmes, Colorado Education Initiativ
· Lisa Larson, Boulder Valley paraprofessional
· Dee Leyba, La Junta school board member
· Rebecca McClellan, State Board of Education
· Catie Santos de la Rosa, Aurora educator
· Crystal Jennings, Colorado Springs parent
· Dan Gherke, CEO of Lutheran High School in Parker
· Mike Miles, Third Future Schools
· Rachel Kaygi, parent and board member of Healthier Colorado
· Kelly Grenham, Mapleton School District nurse
· Heath Harmon, Eagle County Public Health
· Tom Gonzales, Larimer County Public Health