In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many discussions, within both Animas High School and the larger Colorado community, have focused on how and when to return students to in-person classes. Debate rages, weighing the possible risk of sickness with the social-emotional and academic consequences of purely online schooling. The contact within schools increases the risk of coronavirus spread, making in-person class risky. However, purely online class has an impact on the students' social and academic lives. Math performance has been trending down since the start of the pandemic, and students have been suffering in the realm of mental health. The increased isolation and lack of social opportunities has led to an increase in depression among students.
Following Governor Polis’ decision to move Colorado’s response level down, Animas and Durango 9R have resumed in-person teaching. Although it is not full-time, with students still having a large portion of their week spent remotely, students at Animas still spend between 4 and 8 hours a week in classrooms with their teachers and peers. While we can not be certain if we returned at the right time, Children's Hospital Colorado states, “The data suggest that outbreaks of the coronavirus in schools and districts tend to mirror the spread in the surrounding community. This means that in Colorado we haven’t seen much evidence that schools are driving an increase in community spread or that younger children attending school are spreading the virus widely in the state.”
Durango area schools have seen a concerning uptick in cases of COVID since February. Durango’s health service strain is described as “tremendous”. This gives little room for error for school decision makers, as potential mistakes can quickly spiral out into the community. One of the major risks of returning to school was, obviously, risks of infection, as students who are sick without symptoms will be at risk of spreading infections to the rest of the school. However, Etoile Hening, Animas High School RN consultant, claims that the wider scrutiny at school means we can catch many cases and continue contract tracing efforts despite the risks. When asked if returning to school will hurt efforts to contain outbreaks, she stated, “No, I don't think so because since students are not allowed to come to school with any symptoms at all and we follow up on anyone with covid symptoms then I think we potentially catch positive cases quicker than if folks were not being followed up on.”
When asked her opinions on returning to in person learning, Hening voiced understanding both sides of the argument. “This is a tough call because an argument can be made for either side and the situation continues to be influx and ever changing.” She did note how much our response capability has improved, especially as we have moved into winter and seen the fruits of our vaccination efforts. “I do believe that we have a lot on our side now that we didn't have this winter. We will have warmer weather which allows for more time spent outside which is safer overall and allows for more spacing. We will also have a fully vaccinated staff by the end of March and the majority of the most vulnerable in our community are now fully vaccinated.“ These positive factors increase the likelihood of a successful, safe return to school. However, concerns were raised on a return being all sunshine and roses. “I do have concerns about students that do not do well without in person classes as well as the mental health effects on students that feel isolated with such limited social time at school.” Etoile did consider school to be one of the safer places to be with larger risks present for outside of school extracurriculars where guidelines might not be strictly followed, “I also believe that school is one of the safest places to be, all things considered, since all of the guidelines are followed at school. It is more likely to be spread outside of school at parties and gatherings where students are not wearing masks.” Ultimately, Animas High School exists within the larger Durango and La Plata community, and what occurs within these areas will certainly have a large impact on Animas’ return to in-person schooling, “Our local transmission rates will continue to play a big part in the extent that schools are open.”
Even within Animas, there is no consensus on whether returning to in person learning in February was the right choice. Animas has opted to maintain the two days per week in person, three days per week online hybrid model. Students are split, with most viewing a chance to return and see friends as great, but others are worried about potentially contracting coronavirus. Senior Jacob Burton prefers the status quo, saying that he “thinks we should stay with 2 in-person days”. Garrett Middleton agreed, noting that “It’s good to have balance somewhat” between online and in-person days. Others have concerns, pointing to the data showing that approximately 20% of new cases have been in school aged children and teens.
Fortunately, vaccine efforts are increasing the safety for in person learning. At Animas High, all staff that opted to receive the vaccine are now fully vaccinated. The state of Colorado made all Coloradans 16 and older eligible for the vaccine. 16 and 17 year olds may now receive the Pfizer vaccine, and those 18 and older can receive any of the three approved vaccines.In the image to the left, the author receives the Pfizer vaccine from Bear Wessel at PPSW. Vaccination efforts have given hope that end of the year activities such as graduation will be able to be organized and accommodate all seniors’ family members that would like to attend. Any students or family members interested in receiving the vaccine can check San Juan Basin Health Department’s website for local vaccine providers to schedule an appointment.