Public schools open for the year on Monday, with pre-K through fifth grade attending in-person while sixth grade and above will take classes remotely. (Planet file photo)

This year, it’s not quite as easy as “A, B, C,” or as simple as “Do, Re, Mi,” despite what the Jackson 5 song might have to say. While the national conversation regarding how, or if, students and teachers can safely return to school during an ongoing pandemic has dominated headlines for weeks, the teachers and administrators of the Telluride R-1 school district have been compiling a nuanced approach to this school year.

The approach, while juggling the constantly changing landscape of the virus and its attendant risk mitigation guidelines, offers a strategy to minimize risk to both students and teachers while providing in-person instruction to younger students and those in prioritized groups such as special education and English Language Learners.

The school year is scheduled to begin Monday, with pre-kindergarten through fifth grades attending classes in-person, with the option for families to choose remote learning. Sixth through twelfth grades will start the school year with remote instruction, though prioritized groups will have in-person classes available.

“While remote learning is a challenge for all, younger children in particular have a harder time,” said Superintendent John Pandolfo. “An additional factor is that research has indicated children 10 and under are less likely to transmit the virus than older children. Also, the nature of classroom structures and schedules is such that grades five and below can be kept in smaller cohorts and each individual cohort has contact with less adults than at higher grades.”

Older students will follow online curriculums.

“Because starting at grade six teachers specialize by content area, one student testing positive in grade six would likely require all grade six teachers to quarantine; this would not happen at lower grades,” Pandolfo said. “While drawing the line between two grades in the intermediate school, rather than between schools, may not seem to make sense, it is based on medical and educational guidance.”

While grades six and above will begin the school year with full remote learning, Telluride Middle/High School Principal Sara Kimble expressed optimism for the upcoming year, calling the decision to go remote a balance of students’ “educational needs with health and safety.”

Classes will involve a “combination of Zoom instruction, small groups, and independent work,” she said. “Our hope is that it is improved from the spring. The teachers have been doing a tremendous amount of work to prepare for remote learning. We hope to keep the kids engaged as well as balance the screen time and off-screen time. We have always prided ourselves on the relationships we build with students. I know teachers will be creative in how they connect with students. It will be a challenge that I hope we rise to.”

Meanwhile, for younger students and in-person prioritized groups, myriad safety precautions have been put in place, including adherence to the “five commitments” such as mask wearing and physical distancing. The school district has also adopted a detailed plan for transitioning between phases of the pandemic, with improving or worsening virus metrics dictating transitions to increased in-person or remote learning within the district.

Pandolfo, who is in his first year as the district’s superintendent, emphasized the importance of centering students’ needs and wellbeing while navigating the stresses and challenges of a drastically different school year.

“We are in this together, and to do the best we can for children we need to work together with children first and foremost in our minds,” he said. “While I have greatly appreciated the positive comments and support coming from many directions, I also have taken note of some less than respectful comments and behavior. While I know that stressful times like these can bring out what is not the best in all of us, we have no room for that. I truly believe to be the best we can be, we need to foster a culture of excellence, and that is my responsibility as the leader of our district, but everyone in the community has a responsibility to contribute in a positive manner.”

Kimble expressed her continued determination to support teachers this year in providing the top-quality education for which the district is often celebrated, calling the district’s staff “invaluable” and “courageous.”

“We will do the best we can,” she said. “We know it won’t be perfect but we will not stop trying to meet the needs of our students. They are the reason why we do this work."