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Local private schools prepare for in-person learning

 

August 19, 2020

Courtesy Photo

"The classrooms are much more austere," Dawson School Head George Moore said of distancing measures in place on campus.

The scramble for a viable plan to reopen schools amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced many area parents to weigh their students' health and safety against the quality of their education. But officials at private schools Boulder Country Day and the Dawson School say they've found a way to provide families with both for the 2020 fall semester, and are eager to welcome students back for full-time, in-person learning later this month.

"In general, school leadership teams are not made up of public health professionals or scientists-we are made up of educators who care deeply about kids, and the pandemic has caused us to really think carefully and thoughtfully about how best to move forward," John Suitor III, head of BCD, said of the "difficult decision" to offer face-to-face instruction, starting on Aug. 31. "We've had a lot of different feedback from health officials, from families, and from teachers and, ultimately, we decided that we could have in-person learning and follow the recommended health and safety guidelines."

Boulder Country Day is located in Gunbarrel near Twin Lakes, and has a student population of 360 enrolled in preschool through eighth grade. The Dawson School which is celebrating its 50th year in 2020, is located in east Boulder County and has a student enrollment of 520 in grades K-12. At both, yearly tuition costs average around $25,000, but "robust" financial assistance is available.

All K-12 schools in Boulder County-public, private or charter-are subject to the health mandates issued under Governor Polis' Safer at Home order, as well as local regulations issued by the county health department. Under current guidance, this includes mandatory masking, adequate spacing, and limiting contact between students and adults. Practically, this means BCD and Dawson students will be returning to campuses that don't much look like the ones they left in March. Indoor classrooms have been reconfigured to accommodate distancing and ventilation requirements, while outdoor spaces are being repurposed for instruction.

"We spent a lot of time this summer and are continuing to spend time moving a lot of furniture out and storing it so that the classrooms are much more austere," Moore said of Dawson's modifications for the new school year, which begins on Aug. 24. "We are also blessed with a large and beautiful campus with lots of shade, so right off the bat we have lots of options for teachers to go outside and find a shaded area where kids can distance and perhaps take their mask off for a few minutes and also have a class... Experiential education is a big part of what we do here so if we can do things outdoors and safely, we will continue to look at those."

But it's not just physical alterations the students will notice. The guidelines also recommend "cohorting," or keeping students in small, isolated groups throughout the day to minimize the risk of widespread transmission and the potential disruption of an outbreak.

"Historically, we have been very collaborative in our approach to teaching and learning...and the biggest thing that sticks out to me physically is to see desks in a row, which is something we haven't had in our school in a number of years," Suitor said. "Our kids are going to be going to school in cohorts and those cohorts are not going to mix. Usually, there are two sections of first grade, and you can count on seeing your buddy in the other section at recess, and we're not going to be able to do that this year."

Nonetheless, that hasn't seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of students and families of these schools, who have been "overwhelmingly supportive" of the in-person model, with the "vast, vast majority" opting in for the upcoming school year.

But it's not just current families who are enthusiastic about the in-person model. According to Moore, Dawson has seen "more admission interest that we can accommodate" over the past several weeks.

"For a couple of reasons I think," Moore said. "First they're happy with the safety measures and the protocols that we put into place, and they know the value of in-person learning above and beyond the value of the Dawson education."

By and large, teachers and other staff members have also been supportive of the plans and look forward to reuniting with their students in-person. However, some have also expressed anxiety about potential health risks, and the schools are working to address those concerns.

"One of the things that I would like to emphasize is that the faculty and staff at schools like Boulder Country Day and in the Boulder Valley and Saint Vrain Valley Districts are really becoming the new front line workers," Suitor said. "Being grateful for those working in this challenging education environment is especially important right now."

Courtesy Photo

Classrooms at Boulder Country Day have been rearranged to accommodate distancing guidelines and smaller cohorts for the upcoming school year.

Of course, with uncertainty the order of the day in 2020, neither BCD nor Dawson has abandoned their online learning plans. Both schools still offer a fully remote option for families with high-risk members or who are taking a "wait and see" approach. They are also prepared to revive their full-time online curricula should further health restrictions or lockdowns become necessary later this year.

"We did it really well with our remote learning last spring, and so I think families probably know that if we have to go remote or have to go to a hybrid model, we're confident of success there too," Moore said.

From the sunny shores of August, however, that possibility seems like a long way off. For now, Moore and Suitor are focused on getting their schools "pandemic-ready" for students and making the 2020 back-to-school experience as close to normal as possible.

"The kids can't wait to get back into school," Suitor said. "That's one of the things I think we sometimes underestimate-the social and emotional benefits of being in the school environment.... Just to see the smile on their faces-well, that's why we do what we do."

 

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