After almost a month in school, the district has 67 unfilled staff positions as COVID-19 adds continual challenges

After nearly a month in school, the local school board was updated on several areas of concern as well as bright spots at Wednesday’s board meeting. This included discussions of COVID-19 operations, staffing and enrollment.

One of the primary factors leading into the planning of this school year remains COVID-19. And as the delta variant continues to grow in prevalence, Eagle County Schools is continuing to update its operations to adapt to challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Just before the start of school, following a local public health order, the district mandated masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors at buildings that teach pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The district’s high schools had no mandate, simply a recommendation for individuals to wear masks.

However, earlier this month, the district quickly adapted to address an outbreak at Eagle Valley High School, where there were “nearly 30 positive cases” of COVID-19 identified in one week, Superintendent Philip Qualman said. The district implemented a two-week mask mandate at the high school, which started Sept. 3 and will be in place through Thursday, Sept. 16. Plus, following the increase in cases, it hosted a COVID-19 testing event at the school on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Qualman said that this event resulted in 200 total tests and produced 25 positive tests from that event.

While the high school’s increase in cases did impact the school’s volleyball and football teams, Qualman said at the board meeting no other sports in the district have been impacted by the pandemic. This remains a bright spot for the district as it continues to emphasize the importance of keeping kids in classrooms and in activities.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Qualman said that while there are now additional testing sites in the county — at the Gypsum Sports Complex and Eagle Pool and Ice Rink — leadership was evaluating whether or not to participate in a COVID-19 testing program administered by the state.

This program is administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and allows students, faculty and staff to opt-in for free weekly rapid antigen COVID-19 tests. Administration of the tests would be run by a team from Denver contracted through Colorado Public Health.

Before the start of the school year, Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email to the Vail Daily that the district was not going to participate in the program at that time but that it would continue to monitor community spread and vaccinations.

However, as the spread and disease incidence rate has risen in the county, the district is now considering the program.

“I want to be clear that this testing is optional for staff and students who want to take advantage of this. Parents would have to opt their students into it,” Qualman said. “We haven’t finalized this agreement, we’re just collecting information.”

Qualman asked for the board to weigh in on the program. Multiple board members expressed concern that having the program at schools could create a social pressure around getting tested, asking if there were other community locations where the testing could be done.

“I like the idea of having more data available about where we’re at with cases right now,” said board member Michelle Stecher. “The main advantage to schools seems like that’s where many kids are at a given time, but I agree that I think it comes along with a pressure or perceived affiliation with school that I don’t think is necessary.”

In order to increase participation, the state is also considering offering incentives, in the form of a $10 gift card, for students and families that opt in. This was something that many board members did not support offering.

Ultimately, the district has yet to make a decision on the program but will be looking into other possible locations for testing as well as whether or not the mask mandate could be temporarily repealed for students that tested negative. The latter was something that Qualman said he would ask public health about, but “can anticipate the answer will be no.”