BRIGGSDALE — While larger school districts across the state are struggling to decide what is right for students and teachers to return to school this fall, one district in northeast Weld County is ready to get back in the classrooms and keep things as normal as possible.
Weld County School District Re-10J in Briggsdale, will return to classes on Aug. 18, with limited changes, and most importantly — the superintendent and teachers say — the ability to choose how they handle the health risk of COVID-19.
The district — with about 180 students in pre-K through 12th grade, 18 teachers, and 43 total staff members — will begin the year in person and allow students and staff to decide for themselves whether they wear masks.
“We believe we fit the state’s criteria for ‘Protect Our Neighbors,’ District Superintendent Rick Mondt said. “We have been in contact and work closely with the Weld County Health Department. We have had no cases of COVID in Briggsdale that we are aware of.”
Protect Our Neighbors is the third phase in reopening a county or city under Gov. Jared Polis’ determinations. The designation technically requires a variance from the state. However, the Department of Public Health and Environment in Weld County has said it will not apply for any variances, with the Weld county Attorney calling them a game and without authority for the state to issue. Weld County has repeatedly said it will not enforce most of Polis’ executive orders that pertain to health regulations because they are either not valid or without proper authority.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a presence of masks, Mondt said. Bus drivers will be wearing masks and they expect some staff will wear them as well.
“It’s based on the classes they teach and their own personal comfort and beliefs,” Mondt said, adding classroom sizes range from four to 16.
The lack of infection in Briggsdale isn’t just recently, the low incidence in the unincorporated portion of northeastern Weld County dates back to March when the virus first caused Polis to shut down businesses and group gatherings over 10.
It’s a big part of why the district — teachers, parents and staff alike — believe they are making the right decision for their community.
“We are going to count heavily on home screening,” Mondt said. Parents “are going to have to be responsible when their child leaves their home. Families have to make great decisions because it’s not only going to affect their family but the entire school. But that’s what makes us different. We trust our neighbors. We don’t take this lightly, but we believe we take care of our kids and raise them best. So, we’re going to try.”
Mondt said the district looked at two options, the one they chose to go with at a recent Board of Education meeting, and a second one that puts into play more stringent mask and social distancing precautions that include isolating cohorts and separating the students more.
If a student or staff member is diagnosed with COVID-19, Mondt said the school can easily shift from option one to option two — which would be separated by up to a two week shut down that will convert to online learning while all students and staff isolate at home.
He does not expect any disruption to learning if the district needs to readjust its thinking. The district is well prepared for any spike that may or may not come its way, adding Briggsdale families are not living in a bubble. They have been able to keep the virus from their community despite the fact most all families work and/or travel into Greeley and other areas of Weld County where the number of cases were at one point one of the highest in the state.
Greeley and Weld County have leveled off and been declining since hitting a peak on April 29. In fact, since April 29, the county has stayed well below the three-day average goal set by the state of 25 new cases per day with one exception between July 12 and July 16, when the average was 39 new cases average per day. Weld’s numbers have again gone down over the last week, averaging about 20 new cases per day.
The total number of deaths that are attributed to COVID-19 in Weld are also down since a one-day high of four on April 24, with a cumulative total on that date of 65 (the first 43 days that figures were reported). In the past 89 days, there have been an additional 26 deaths attributed to COVID-19, 16 of those in May and two in June. There have been no deaths attributed to the virus in July as of press time.
Mondt said the fact his community has not been affected by the virus is evidence statewide mandates are not a one-size fits all solution, adding schools have been dealing with viruses and disease long before COVID-19.
“COVID is different, but it’s the same in how we deal with illness,” Mondt said. “This is not new to anybody. All the new features we put in place will help us with colds and other infections, too, but in the 18 years I’ve been here, the rules are the same. If a student has a fever over 99.6 we will ask a parent to come get them. In all fairness, this is just an enhancement of what we’ve always done. It’s not a big change.”
Teachers and staff in the district feel the same, Mondt said. A survey that went out two weeks ago showed everyone in the district was comfortable returning under the current plan. To help district staff feel safe, Briggsdale revamped its HVAC system so that it now has all new technology. There is hand sanitizer, face shields, masks and other PPE available to everyone in the district. Hand sanitizer stations are placed throughout the school in each hallway, and staff will be cognizant to keep elementary students isolated from secondary students.
Mondt said he understands his staff’s support could very well change in the coming weeks before school starts, and if something changes drastically by then, the district will shift its plans. But for now, everyone is content with the plans in place.
Fifth grade teacher Corey Hale, who also grew up in Briggsdale, said he’s completely comfortable with the district’s plan and is looking forward to getting back in the classroom.
“It’s about what I teach my kids,” Hale said. “Personal accountability is a part of growing up. You have to make your own decisions.”
Hale said there is no argument that Briggsdale and its small classroom sizes can manage social distancing much easier than most schools, but he would support full in person learning regardless, and despite him being a diabetic.
“I know my body,” he said, adding he has never worn a mask. “I go regularly for checkups and take my medicine as prescribed. I check my numbers on a regular basis, and I know if I’m not feeling well, I’ll contact my doctor and stay at home.”
Hale said for him it’s all about personal choice. He said the argument that masks are for the public’s safety doesn’t convince him.
“Parents at the board meeting didn’t want to mask their children,” Hale said. “They want school to be as normal as possible. And when a teacher or an adult is wearing a mask, kids can’t see their facial expressions. It’s a personal choice, though, if it makes you feel safer then wear it.”
Not all teachers in Colorado see it that way. In fact, teachers in districts statewide — under the direction of the Colorado Education Association (CEA) — are pushing their school boards to go in other directions. Some want to push back the start date of school to see if the current trends of new cases are related to the Fourth of July or if it’s the start of a new wave. Others want to start the school year online and move to in person lessons when it becomes what they perceive as safe.
The Re-10J district does not have a local chapter of the CEA; however, teachers are able to become members of the state chapter, which is likely the case. The CEA is the state affiliate to the National Education Association, which is an advocacy group for teachers that includes union contract negotiations.
The Facebook group Colorado Schools for Safe Openings — 14 days No New Cases, is organizing a statewide protest for July 27 to send the message they are refusing to return to work unless a series of demands are met.
“I’m ready to go back to school to see my students,” Hale said. “I’m worried about my kids, they could be in an abusive situation. They could not be getting regular meals like they should. We have to think about these things as well.”