“This is the life we’re living,” District 6 student and others welcome reopening of school buildings

Esmeralda Perez has adapted to going to school online.

The 14-year-old Greeley West High School freshman isn’t wild about remote learning, but she’s adjusted. Instead of checking in with friends and teachers in hallways and classrooms, Perez and many her peers in District 6 and beyond are logging into a computer for their school days.

“It’s honestly pretty strange,” said Perez, a self-described social person, about learning during the past 10 months through the COVID-19 pandemic. “Going from having physical contact with people you know to not being able to see everybody — it’s different.”

GREELEY, CO – JANUARY 14:Greeley West freshman Esmeralda Perez, 14, left, and her mother Elena Perez stand for a portrait outside Greeley West High School in Greeley Jan. 14, 2021. Greeley-Evans School District 6 will finish reopening buildings for in-person learning for students in grades 3-12 Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

Perez, an Evans resident, is among the Greeley-Evans School District students ready to return to school buildings when the district completes its reopening next week.

After starting the academic year with in-school classes in August, District 6 students, teachers and staff battled illness, positive cases, quarantines and buildings on remote status through the fall before the district-wide switch to remote learning came before Thanksgiving break.

District 6 Superintendent Deirdre Pilch last month introduced a plan to the board of education to gradually reopen school buildings after winter beak. Students in kindergarten through second grades went back to schools Jan. 11. The remainder of students return Jan. 19.

Perez has fears about going back to school, although it will be only two days per week, according to the hybrid model for high school students. But, Perez said, it’s time to return, and she’s ready.

“I guess it’s the life we’re living in at the moment,” she added. “At school, they’re hard about taking masks off. There are not too many students in each classroom, and we can’t socialize in the hallway. I feel like we’re good.”

Perez, who said she learns better in class and in school, is not alone in her desire to re-engage with friends, peers and teachers. The social and human connections also are concern of board of education member Ray Talley.

“The bottom line is our kids need to be in school and to be in the buildings and engaging in the social interaction that is healthy for the human development,” Talley said.

Talley is a school social worker in the St. Vrain School District, and he’s as concerned and attuned to students’ social and emotional health as he is with their academic results.

Talley said the district community spoke loudly on its preference for open school buildings in response to a survey sent to staff, students and parents in November. Pilch reported the results of the responses “clearly showed” a desire for in-person learning.  Talley said it’s important for the district “to cater to their needs and wants.” He added an understanding that not everyone will agree.

“We’re fully aware there is no way to completely satisfy everyone,” he said. “All we can do is to try our best.”

‘We shouldn’t be doing this’

District principals believe their best will be good enough to sustain in-person learning long term. There are no guarantees or promises with the unpredictability of a powerful virus.

This is one reason Greeley resident and District 6 parent Gabe LLanas opposes reopening. LLanas’ daughter, Hannah, is a 9-year-old fourth grader at University Schools, a public charter in District 6.

Gabe LLanas and his wife, Mel, have kept Hannah out of school all year because Mel LLanas has a  spinal condition that affects her immune system. The family didn’t want to risk Mel’s health by sending Hannah to schools, so they’re guiding through online learning at home.

“By them opening up, it affects my daughter,” Gabe LLanas said. “I see how my daughter’s responded not being able to interact with her friends and teachers. I want my daughter to go back, and every time you open up stuff, it spikes the numbers and stalls my daughter going back all over again.”

Earlier this month, on Jan. 7, Weld County reported more than 180 new cases, which remains the highest mark this month, but that’s just 52{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the daily cases recorded in early November when District 6 announced the plan to go fully online.

Weld County reported 309 cases that day, Nov. 12, and the numbers continued to trend upward — as public health officials warned school officials would happen — for the next week. The 432 cases reported in the county on Nov. 20 remains the one-day high at any point during the pandemic.

Gabe LLanas said he understands how it’s hard for people to remain at home, with lives and routines disrupted. It’s hard for his family; he and Mel both work and they’re helping Hannah with her schooling.

“We’ve basically been her teachers,” LLanas said.

But, as challenging as remote learning has been for the family, LLanas said it’s too soon in the pandemic to make this move.

“I’m sorry, sometimes you have to be responsible, and we shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “It sucks, I get it. The reality is they’re never really going to get back to school until this goes away or it’s controlled, and it’s never going to be controlled if we keep opening things up over and over again.”

Vaccine provides longterm solution

COVID-19 vaccines are circulating nationwide, although slower than some anticipated and doses are limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices reports the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine includes adults 18 and older. The Pfizer EUA covers people 16 and older, according to the CDC.

Lacking a coordinated federal plan for distribution to this point, states are establishing their own timelines, though student-age population under 18 has not been prioritized.

In Colorado, the state has shuffled the space in line for the vaccine occupied by teachers and other essential workers in education. According to the state, the majority of teachers can expect to receive vaccine in late February or early March.

Dr. Mark Wallace, chief clinical officer for Sunrise Community Health in Evans, said in December up to 70{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} of the population would have to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity and assure any chance of resuming normal lives.

In the meantime, as people wait for their turn on the vaccination timeline, District 6 is resuming as much of a normal educational setting as it can in the current environment.

Elena Perez, Esmeralda’s mother, welcomes the return and said two days per week — the high school’s hybrid plan— isn’t enough.

“These kids need to be back in school because I feel a lot of them have the option to go or not to go (to online school),” Elena Perez said. “It’s not something they have to do. A lot of kids, have parents working and kids are home messing around. As much as teachers have lost contact with kids, parents are so used to kids getting a bus, and they don’t have to be involved with their kids.”

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