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  • Sunny van der Star, right, says goodbye to her twins, Zephyr and Zia, as they enter kindergarten during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. Their teacher, Janet Okruch, waits by the door. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Eileen Wrobel, center, is ready to enter first grade, as her mother, Michelle Cash, right, stands nearby during the first day of school Tuesday at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • First grade teacher April Busch hands out hand sanitizer to Eileen Wrobel during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Sunny van der Star, right, says goodbye to her twins, Zephyr and Zia, as they enter kindergarten during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Olivia Jerard is hugged by her mother Tiffany Roe as she starts kindergarten during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Olivia Jerard runs in circles with excitement by her mother Tiffany Roe, right, as she starts kindergarten during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

  • Olivia Jerard is greeted by her kindergarten teacher Janet Okruch during the first day of school at Mesa Elementary School in Boulder on Jan. 5, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

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Third graders at Boulder’s Mesa Elementary happily zoomed around the gym on Tuesday, trying to tag each other with pool noodles.

Their physical education teacher, Jacy Bruno, is using individual pool noodles for a safer version of tag, one of several changes she developed to keep her students playing team games while following safety measures. After tag, they practiced kicking skills by trying to knock down bowling pins.

“The kids have been awesome,” she said. “It’s so great to see them together.”

Boulder Valley elementary students returned after winter break on Tuesday to in-person classes. The district’s second semester plan includes elementary students attending four days a week in person, while secondary students start remotely and will be phased in for a hybrid model with two days in person.

Mondays will remain a “launch” day, with students in all grades learning independently from home so teachers can plan.

Students who opted for remote learning only will continue learning from home with a mix of real time and independent learning. Of the district’s almost 30,000 students, about 8,100 are attending online only. About 540 students who previously were online only also opted to learn in person.

St. Vrain Valley students return Wednesday, with elementary students attending four days a week in person. Secondary students start online and will be phased in to attend two days a week in person.

Keeping schools open is the overarching goal for this semester.

Changes in Boulder include hiring 130 classroom monitors to help keep schools staffed and open during quarantines, which are expected to be more targeted thanks to revised state rules. The district also opened a free COVID-19 testing site at Centaurus High for staff and students and plans to provide mobile testing starting Jan. 11.

While parents in both districts continue to advocate for more in-person days for secondary students, Boulder County Public Health is recommending a hybrid schedule. With about half the students in the building at one time, officials said, it’s easier for them to social distance, adding a layer of protection. At the elementary level, keeping students with their classroom cohorts, or groups, throughout the day is one of the main safety measures.

Both districts are waiting on a timeline from the health department on the vaccine rollout for teachers and other school staff members, who were moved up on the vaccine priority list last week by the state. As of now, it’s estimated school staff members can receive the first dose of the two-dose vaccine in four to six weeks, officials said.

Colorado’s public health agencies have been instructed to vaccinate the roughly 562,000 individuals who are 70 and older living in Colorado before making doses available to the essential workers, including teachers, included in Phase 1B of the state’s rollout plan, as reported in The Denver Post.

Boulder County Public Health’s weekly virtual coronavirus community update, which is 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, is expected to focus on the response and prevention efforts in Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley.

At Mesa, a 250-student elementary school in south Boulder, Principal Josh Baldner said running a school during a pandemic is already familiar. While students were remote for about five weeks before winter break, they also attended classes in person in October and November.

“Our previous in-person learning time was very successful,” he said, adding educators are always problem solving, pandemic or not. “We plan, deliver, assess and adjust. This problem solving process is what educators do all the time.”

Mesa’s teachers said they were ready to welcome students back to their classroom.

“I’m so happy to be back,” said third grade teacher Sarah Thompson. “The kids need this, just to get back to normalcy. They need to know they’re cared about, that there is someone to listen.”

Teachers led literacy and math lessons while also giving students time to share about winter break, either with a partner or with the whole class. Third graders talked about losing teeth, a home disco party, sibling fights, skiing and a dog’s birthday.

“I want to give you time to talk about your experience these last few weeks at home,” Thompson told her class. “You have stories to tell.”

Third grader Eleanor Grant, who went cross country skiing the day before, said she much prefers learning in a classroom to learning from home. At home, she said, it can be hard to concentrate and she gets lonely.

“It was so boring not to have anyone to play with,” she said. “I couldn’t motivate myself.”

Fifth grader Asa Corwin wasn’t a fan of online school, either, and said she was ready to go back to her classroom after the break.

“I wanted to see all my friends,” she said.

Next to go in person in Boulder Valley will be middle school students, who move to two days in person and two days online starting Tuesday. High school students move to two days in person starting Jan. 19 — giving them an additional day in person compared to the fall. When not in person, middle and high school students will follow along with the in-person classes from home.

An exception is middle and high school students in intensive special education programs, as well as the high school Newcomers program for immigrants. They will have the option of attending four days a week in person. Boulder TEC and Arapahoe Ridge High School students also will attend in person four days a week.

In St. Vrain Valley, middle school students return to hybrid in-person learning on Monday and high school students on Jan. 19.