Harvard's District 50 announces decision to conduct fall semester via remote learning

In-person learning deemed too risky after a few staff, family members tested positive for COVID-19, superintendent says

Dr. Corey Tafoya, superintendent of the Harvard Community School District 50, talks about budget funding at Richard D. Crosby Elementary School on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in Harvard.
Dr. Corey Tafoya, superintendent of the Harvard Community School District 50, talks about budget funding at Richard D. Crosby Elementary School on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in Harvard.

After multiple staff members tested positive for COVID-19, Harvard Community Unit School District 50 decided that all learning will be conducted remotely for the fall semester.

Many of the district's staff, administrators and parents had hoped to implement a hybrid of remote and in-person learning to be able to keep students engaged while also reducing the risk of infection, Superintendent Corey Tafoya said in an interview Friday. But that all changed just days before the school board was set to make a final decision Thursday evening.

"We're experiencing, like all districts, people in extended families and our own employees with varying degrees of connectedness to the virus, so it becomes very real at that point of how do you handle this?” Tafoya said.

The district's planning committees had conducted surveys, gamed out potential scenarios and weighed the pros and cons for months, Tafoya said. A hybrid learning system, where students would attend classes remotely but come to the school on staggered days in smaller groups, seemed possible at first, he said.

But the more that committee members spoke with local health officials and ran projections on how many people would be affected by just one infection, they decided that their approach to the safety of the district community needed to be proactive rather than reactive, Tafoya said.

“In the end, it's just unmanageable to have 100% confidence that you can do that in a way that's going to be sustainable and have some longevity and be a source of predictable instruction for kids and families," he said.

The news of a few positive tests among staff and their family members was the final piece that led the board to the conclusion that remote learning was the district's best option, Tafoya said.

Sara Weaver, a Harvard High School science teacher, said she had hoped to be able to get back in the classroom with her students but said trusts that the district is making the right call.

Weaver is president of the district's employees union and was involved in the committee meetings for back-to-school planning.

“I personally really miss the kids, and I want to be back at least to some degree in person even if that is next semester now,” Weaver said. “As a science teacher, I'm a very hands-on person. I've got lots of group activities and lots of lab activities, and I don't want to lose that entirely.”

The district has learned a lot since the initial transition to e-learning back in March, Tafoya said. Remote learning will look differently this fall, incorporating community feedback and the benefits of lessons learned.

One big difference: students will go back to being graded on their work, he said. Also, rather than sending over a list of daily assignments and checking in periodically, teachers will structure remote learning as a block of mandatory class time.

The hope is this approach will be easier on parents and better for students, he said.

In order to accommodate students with special or individualized needs, teachers will need to rewrite the majority of their state-mandated special education plans, known as IEPs, to be more suitable for remote instruction, Tafoya said.

Speech classes and occupational therapy will be some of the most difficult programs to replicate virtually, he said. It will take the collaboration of parents and staff to provide the necessary level of support for those students.

“There aren’t any experts on this and so you just kind of have to fashion your own thing," Tafoya said. "It's really a real big challenge for all of us at this point."

The district recently learned that they can even allow teachers to return to their classrooms to utilize chalkboards and other learning equipment in conducting their virtual lessons, he said.

For Weaver, this means it will be easier for her to get creative in offering the kinds of hands-on activities that get her students excited about science, she said. She has been attending webinars and speaking with other science teachers across the region, gathering ideas on how she can conduct experiments without being in the same space as her students, she said.

She decided to put together supply bags for each of her students to help them transform their kitchens, dining rooms or bedrooms into laboratories, she said.

“I've got some UV beads that change color in response to the sunlight, and I am hoping to use them for an experiment with my human anatomy students on skin cancer and the effects of different sunscreens,” she said.

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