One Boulder private high school’s solution for a safe return to in-person learning will also be the students’ first assignment: designing and building an outdoor classroom.
September School, a nonprofit independent institution, is preparing to reopen its campus this month for the first time since schools were ordered to close as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Colorado. It’s one of several Boulder Valley private schools that are leveraging their autonomy to create smaller classrooms and customized learning environments.
Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District updated their reintroduction plans this week. Both districts will start with online only learning after initially announcing plans last month to open with a hybrid model with unique restrictions and allowances for different age groups.
September School doesn’t have to balance as many competing interests as the pubic districts, said Kelly Molinet, head of school and executive director for the private school.
However, September School is offering a soft-commitment for parents who want to enroll their children. From Aug. 18 to Sept. 30, new students can test the waters and decide whether or not to enroll for a full year.
“I think for parents coming from a public school kind of background to a private school tuition feels like a big leap,” Molinet said.
September School plans to implement outdoor learning while weather permits. The high school normally follows BVSD’s academic calendar, with semesters, but will break up into trimesters for the 2020-2021 school year. The December break will prepare students to go remote for January through March, with online live instruction Monday through Thursday.
However, in-person education works best for the September School’s staff and students.
“Online school is really challenging for pretty much everybody: teachers and families and kids,” Molinet said. “We have been doing professional development and have hired more teachers to be our outdoor educators and wilderness therapists, and we’ve written a curriculum to do our academic program outside and in person.”
Before the pandemic, September School already encouraged outdoor education for a couple of courses. But last month, it completed two outdoor classrooms to support outdoor-first learning, just in time for its Aug. 18 start. One of the first student projects will be building a third classroom. The assignment will go over how to design a space and physically build it.
Classes won’t stay stationary. With Settler’s Park nearby, students will hike and bike during lessons. Outdoor curriculum for the fall includes History of Indigenous People, Nature Photography and Drawing, and Natural History and Ecology of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.
The school maxes out at 50 students based on its building size, Molinet said, and enrollment is on track to reach its capacity. But, as a mother of children going to public school in Denver, she thinks there could be an influx of interest in private schools.
September School has a small class ratio of eight students to one instructor, a standard that was in place before the coronavirus gained a foothold in the state. Some classes in the fall will be co-taught with two teachers to 15 students, but classrooms can’t go past that limit. Though students still go through four years of education to graduate high school, classes are mixed ages.
Students and staff will be asked about their health and possible symptoms upon arrival, and masks will be required indoors.
Molinet watched BVSD decisions closely while developing a reopening plan for September School. But there’s more options as a small, independent school, she said.
“We got together in a meeting in the spring as a staff on campus, and we all sat outside. And we just were like, ‘If this is how we feel safest, then why don’t we do school this way?’” Molinet said. “That’s definitely one of the benefits of being a small independent school. We can be really creative and flexible.”
Boulder Valley K-12 students returned home before spring break and have not returned for classes since then. In March, Gov. Jared Polis delivered an executive order to close all of the state’s schools and in-person learning from March 23 to April 17. The mandate was later extended for the rest of the academic year.
During that time, students and teachers swiftly adjusted to online learning with platforms, including video lessons.
Guidance from the state was released in July, just about a month before most schools start classes.
Boulder County Public Health has been holding regular meetings with Boulder County school districts and school heads since March. Throughout the summer, conversations shifted to reopening.
The department is working with BVSD and St. Vrain Valley School District — two public school districts in Boulder County that account for more than 100 schools collectively — and around 25 to 30 charter and private institutions, said Heather Crate, school liaison officer for the health department.
In June, there were separate meetings were BVSD, SVVSD and independent and charter schools. Crate said that allows for schools to ask questions about their specific situation.
But some protocols go across the board for the state. BCPH and public health agencies for other areas relay the state’s guidance.
Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Department of Education and the governor’s office released a guide to school reopenings by the three phases of the state’s COVID-19 response: Stay at Home, Safer at Home and Protect Our Neighbors. Colorado is still under the Safer at Home stage.
Students ages 11 and up must wear face coverings over the mouth and nose while inside buildings, staying consistent with the Colorado mask mandate. It’s not required for younger children but encouraged. Staff must also wear masks. Exceptions can be made for students whose health or education could be inhibited by a mask. Face coverings can be removed for napping and outdoor exercise and recesses where social distancing can be maintained.
The state suggests creating student cohorts, performing at-home temperature and symptom screenings, and staggering arrival and pickup times.
The state health department on July 30 released guidelines about when to close classrooms or schools or quarantine students and staff when someone tests positive for COVID-19 or is considered likely to have it. Generally, any time someone tests positive, that person should be isolated at home and the members of their cohort or their close contacts should quarantine at home for 14 days, which would result in a two-week closure of that class or cohort. If there are five or more classroom or cohort outbreaks in a school or 5% of students, faculty and staff have active coronavirus infections, the school would close for 14 days.
The department is monitoring state, regional and local coronavirus cases and data and communicating the risks back to school heads, superintendents and others in education administration. Preventative measures both in and out of schools is the key to safe reopenings, Crate added.
“I think the biggest piece of this is that as community members, whether or not we have children or not, we need to understand how our behaviors potentially impact children,” she said.
The Association of Colorado Independent Schools, which accredits and supports independent schools in the state, has been meeting regularly. With 38 schools in the association, there’s not a one-size-fits-all plan, said Alan Smiley, executive director of ACIS.
“All of our independent schools are different in terms of their facility, their resources, their size, their mission, the programming that they provide,” Smiley said. “And so adjustments and the plans that they need to develop to serve their communities are often quite unique, and that makes for a challenge in terms of planning and implementation.”
Bixby School, Boulder Country Day School, Dawson School, Friends School, Mackintosh Academy Boulder Campus, Shining Mountain Waldorf School and Watershed School are independent schools in Boulder County that are members of the association.
Smiley said that private and public schools face the same uncertainties and problems. But to follow state and local guidelines, private schools can’t rely on government funding. State guidelines suggest improving ventilation systems for airflow, keeping sinks stocked with soap and paper towels, and providing barriers such as sneeze guards. There’s also a push for online learning options that may require updating technology.
“Private schools in Colorado are small businesses, so it’s hard sometimes for people to see the small-business side because they just have the school side in their mind,” said Abbi Reese, director at Desiderata School in Longmont. “So we are absolutely vulnerable as a small business, and I’ve communicated that to our families as well.”
Desiderata has some of its highest enrollment in the spring because many students are transfers, she said. Reese added that closing to in-person learning in March resulted in a loss of new students.
The small private school already had an alternative learning environment. It provides distance learning, serves as an umbrella school for home-schooled students, and teaches onsite classes using homeschool curriculum.
Desiderata has about 20 students, including home-schooled and distance-learning students.
For in-person classes, Desiderata will use a hybrid model when it reopens on Aug. 24.
The hybrid model is temporary, Reese said, and will last for four to six weeks. The school plans on returning to full-time in-person learning after the period if it’s safe to do so.
High-school students will have classes on site for two days and spend two days on Zoom. Upper-elementary and middle-school students will be in person on the alternating days. Desiderata is removing unnecessary furniture to space out students.
Reese said that the in-person classes will be math and science, the subjects that are more difficult to instruct remotely. Pastry decorating, book clubs and other virtual extracurricular activities will be available to enrolled students and others outside of the school.
With the school’s small size, two or three students graduating or a few students not enrolling in the spring semester affects it more than larger institutions. But, Desiderata’s reintroduction protocols are also simpler, Reese said.
“A large school district like St. Vrain Valley or Boulder Valley, you know they’re looking to appease or find a happy medium for so many students,” she said. “And we are only trying to do that for about 20 families, so it makes that job a little bit easier for us.”
Watershed School, a 6-12 private school near downtown Boulder, is one school that’s making huge alterations to its system. The academic year, which was split into two semesters, will now have quarter-long blocks. This allows students to take only three classes a day.
Watershed is small overall, with fewer than 100 students total enrolled in its middle and high school classes. Classroom sizes will be limited to 10 students to keep small cohorts. Some office spaces have been converted into classrooms to accommodate spaced desks.
Tim Breen, head of school for Watershed, said that he wants students to adjust to the new health protocols out of empathy and not just to follow rules.
“This is really calling on all of us to be in the service of others,” he said. “We’ve already started this summer with some communications to really talk about that. To say, ‘You know what? This is about us really drawing on that part of us that is caring for others.’”
Watershed is upgrading its remote-learning technology to make classes more engaging for students who will opt out of in-person learning.
The school is using a HyFlex-inspired hybrid structure, with every class recorded on Zoom. HyFlex is a course model mostly used by colleges to allow both in-person and remote students to learn and participate at the same time.
Larger televisions, three webcams focusing on different parts of the room and a microphone are being installed into each classroom. Instructors will control the videos with a tablet. Students both at home and on campus can see and interact with each other. Breen said that Watershed invested approximately $1,500 for every classroom.
George Moore, head of school at Dawson School in Lafayette, said that July had more inquiries and applications than previous summers. The school, which has a cap size of 540 students, usually has around 500 enrolled students a year.
“As other schools have made their decisions clear, I think families are looking at their options and so there’s a lot of interest in Dawson,” he said.
Just as BVSD developed a plan for fall that includes five distinct phases on a spectrum of fully remote learning to fully in-person learning, Dawson has plans A, B, C and D for reopening. It’s reintroducing students through Plan B, with Monday through Friday in-person classes with social distancing. The class sizes will stay within 15 to 19 students. Parents and guardians can still opt out their children from in-person classes.
Classes begin Aug. 19 for K-8 and Aug. 24 for high-school students.
Dawson’s 107-acre campus has more than 10 structures on site. The Dawson Center for Innovation, a 25,000-square-foot building under construction, is on schedule to complete buildout by October. At that point, another six classrooms will be available.
Dawson signed an agreement with Zoom before the shutdown and ensured that students and instructors had tools to access the web-conferencing platform. He added that there was already a robust technology infrastructure for the school. The main focus is on training instructors to teach over Zoom and maintain educational quality.
“The technology was important, but in terms of delivering our academic program to students. It was more about, ‘How do you do it? How long are classes? How do you take breaks?’” Moore said. “‘How do you get students working together, and to try to replicate as best as possible the in person learning experience even though you were remote?’”