To say that the COVID pandemic has been a challenge to Park County School District 1 is something of an understatement. Just managing the numbers is an undertaking that caused Superintendent Jay …
To say that the COVID pandemic has been a challenge to Park County School District 1 is something of an understatement. Just managing the numbers is an undertaking that caused Superintendent Jay Curtis to build a spreadsheet. On that document, he tracks students and staff who are quarantined or have tested positive. It notes when the individual left school and when they should receive clearance to return.
Right now that number hovers around 40; of that number only two are staff members. Although he is deeply concerned about the welfare of the students, Curtis is very anxious about staff members.
“If anything sends us to tier two” — which would involve virtual learning for almost all students — “it will be because of not enough staff and not enough substitutes,” he said Tuesday.
However, technology has also proven to be an unexpected challenge.
The district has been preparing for virtual education since the spring. Each student in grades six through 12 has a school-issued laptop they may take home; elementary students use their issued devices at school, except when virtual learning is required. The district uses a leasing company to get the laptops and new devices for Powell High School. They were ordered in April and scheduled for delivery in June.
When the delivery date approached, the old laptops were packaged up and sent back to the leasing agency; the agency then puts the devices up for sale and if they sell for more than a set price, the school district gets part of that money back.
But the wheels fell off the bus. The expected date of delivery on the new laptops kept getting pushed back. August, the district could work around. September, not impossible. October ...
At that point, the high school did a comprehensive survey to determine how many students had some type of computer they could use if schooling went virtual and which students needed a device. The district was able to purchase 200 Dell laptops, which are much more expensive than the standard-issue Chromebooks, Curtis said. An attachment called Swivl was also ordered, this time for teachers. It allows a small device like an iPad to be mounted on a stationary object and then rotates to follow the subject — in this case, the teacher — around the room.
Curtis said those devices have not arrived yet, either, but most teachers are balancing a laptop on one arm to show work being performed on the board, allowing students at home to follow along.
But there was more bad news to come about the Chromebooks. The delivery date was pushed back again, this time into the new year. Curtis looked around to find what provider might have the laptops in stock rather than counting on a shipment from China or other manufacturing nations.
Much to his surprise, the company that provided the Dells also had Chromebooks in stock. The purchase was made and the computers have shipped for delivery before the end of the year.
Those purchases should be the ticket technologically for getting students through a shutdown, should that become necessary.
But what about students for whom school is far more hands-on, like special needs students in the life skills program at Southside Elementary School? They receive specialized instruction that is frequently high-touch to meet their needs. The same students may need a more structured environment in which to learn; changes in staff or teachers can have serious impacts on those students.
Powell is lucky in that a few staffers have been quarantined, “but we have subs in that program the kids are used to,” Curtis said. Those subs, he added, have a real heart for the students and provide a stable environment for the students.
“There is always some continuity of instruction,” Curtis said.
But the hardest thing and the biggest challenge has been asking the staff at all schools, who already go above and beyond for the kids, to do things so differently from years past.
“This is twice as hard as usual,” Curtis said. “Frankly, they’re tired. It has been a haul.”
The Thanksgiving break, he said, was a godsend, allowing teachers and staff some downtime. And the break inserted a buffer into the cycle of illness. Before Thanksgiving, there were 12 or 13 staff in quarantine. On Monday, there were two.
“They came back ready to tackle December, “ Curtis said.
There are 15 school days until the end of the term. The last day for students is Dec. 22 and the first day back is Jan. 6.
“We are just hoping it breaks the cycle like Thanksgiving did,” Curtis closed.