Reconfiguration at North Fork schools

Renovations are taking place at several schools during the summer as part of the school district's reconfiguration plan in the North Fork valley. 

Delta County School District finished one of its “craziest years” according to Assistant Superintendent Kurt Clay. The 2020-21 school year was marked by a sustained global pandemic and a difficult decision to reconfiguration schools in the North Fork.

The school year began with the cloud of COVID-19 hanging over the head of every school district in the nation. Delta County was no exception. Beginning the school year with a sense of uncertainty pushed district leadership to find workable solutions in an unpredictable learning environment.

“Creating that COVID plan was somewhat daunting because everything was changing so quickly. Sometimes we would write a plan and it would literally change that afternoon,” said Clay.

Despite the challenge, district leadership worked closely with county officials and the local health department to adhere to CDC and CDPHE protocols with the goal of keeping students and staff safe.

High schools began the fall using a hybrid model alternating students between in-person and home learning days. District schools were placed into cohorts, small learning groups that stayed together throughout the year. Face coverings were mandated in classrooms but only when students were up and moving around.

“We had a spike in COVID in the fall and we changed the mask policy to where students who were over 10 years old had to wear them the entire time and that was a big change for our students,” Clay said.

It wasn’t only the students who were facing big changes, Delta County teachers were often teaching in-person and managing online learning. Following the October break, Clay said the district was able to bring students back full-time to the class room.

“That was a huge shift for that time and people somewhat questioned that but we felt that by monitoring the data through the end of August through the first part of October that we had a very effective plan to quarantine kids,” Clay said, adding that the district shut down only two out of fourteen schools during the entire year.

Despite the overall success, there were partial quarantines along the way. At one time, Clay said as many as 150 students were out of school due to COVID. He said the district never saw person-to-person COVID transmission in the class rooms.

“We did have a couple of cases where kids had rode in vehicles and were at social events together where they were really close, that’s where we saw transmission among the kids,” said Clay.

After observing how the virus was being spread, Clay said the district adjusted its policy from quarantining an entire class to a “proximity model” where any student within 6 feet of an infected person had to quarantine. The change kept more students in the classroom learning in-person.

By the second semester, Clay said the district experienced a “big momentum” shift in the right direction with limited indoor activities taking place with some COVID-19 restrictions. Moving into the spring, the district was “almost back to normal” with full attendance at high school graduations.

“The student’s resilience during this whole thing has been amazing to me. Our students are so flexible and so adaptable and willing to make the best out of almost every situation,” Clay said. “We as adults tend to complain a lot more than our students do, they just see it as another challenge and they tackle it and go.”

Clay also praised district staff and teachers for all the extra work involving both in-person and online learning.

“The silver lining in all of this is that we did a lot more outdoor learning which is super healthy for kids and teachers figured out ways to do that,” Clay said, adding that the district also learned how to implement technology in creative ways.

If a global pandemic wasn’t enough, the school district took on the challenge of shuffling schools in the North Fork area.

“That’s obviously been a big deal for Delta County schools,” said Clay. “We have forever changed the reconfiguration of our schools in the North Fork and across the district.”

The main drivers behind combining Hotchkiss and Paonia high schools has been declining enrollment, financial accountability and providing better options for students.

“Because of the combination of all three of those things we had to make some difficult decisions as a board. This has been an ongoing piece for basically three years,” Clay said.

The decision to combine schools was temporarily delayed due to COVID-19 but was revived due to growing financial concerns in the district. Clay said the district did not want to cut staff or programs in the North Fork.

“I will tell you that they (programs) are essential for our student’s learning. We are very adamant that it’s a ‘whole child learning process’ and the arts are critical for our students to be successful,” said Clay.

Foreshadowing things to come, Hotchkiss and Paonia high schools fielded a combined baseball team this spring making it into the state playoffs.

“We are extremely excited for our North Fork students. We believe that they are going to have more options and a better education based on the ability to have more peer interaction and more clubs. We feel it’s going to be a better situation for those students,” Clay said.

Over the summer months, Clay said there’s a lot of work taking place at a number of the schools including simple maintenance such as painting. He said there are also minor and major renovations taking place especially at the new K-8 school in Paonia.

Rebranding work is currently taking place at the new North Fork High School in Hotchkiss including painting in the gymnasium, preserving both school’s history and putting the finishing touches on the new mascot and logo. A grand opening ceremony for North Fork High is planned for the fall.

With the opening of schools looming on the horizon, Delta County schools continue to be faced with the management of a sustained pandemic while also transitioning students into a new high school. And while no one knows what lies ahead in the 2021-22 school year it’s safe to say that Delta County schools will continue to forge ahead.

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