ALAMOSA — With many counties throughout the state of Colorado finally seeing a slow but steady decline in the number of COVID cases, the exact opposite is happening in Alamosa with numbers rivaling what was experienced at the height of the pandemic. The Alamosa School District (ASD) is far from immune to the surge going in the community. As was stated in a Thursday press release from Linda Smith, SLV Emergency Preparedness Response Coordinator, “…increases in COVID-19 among children and adolescents are closely correlated to increased illness in the community as a whole, and that has been the case in the San Luis Valley over the past several weeks.”
Consequently, with more than 100 members of the public in attendance both in person and via Zoom online, the ASD Board of Education presented a revised version of the “reopening plan” that contained new mitigation procedures to hopefully curb the spread of COVID in schools.
The numbers alone make the best case for implementing a different plan from what is currently in place. According to ASD Superintendent Dr. Diana Jones, there are, as of October 4, a total of 183 students in quarantine – 20 from Alamosa High School, 15 from Ortega Middle School, 131 from Alamosa Elementary School 3-5 and 7 from Alamosa Elementary School K-2. Within the first six weeks of school, 56 students have tested positive with the virus and, at various times, entire grades have been quarantined, including all grades of Ortega Middle School who were quarantined in mid-September.
Earlier this week, a marathon “workshop session”, was held by members of the school board. In consultation with the Alamosa County Public Health Department, and with some members of the public who chose to attend, board members ground out a “revised reopening plan.”
The original “reopening plan”, presented prior to school opening by Superintendent Dr. Jones and Assistant Superintendent Luis Murillo to members of the school board and public, had originally recommended a mask mandate for all students. But, following an impassioned and briefly tense period of public comment where the vast majority of parents at the meeting vehemently opposed the mandate, that plan was voted down by board members in a 3:1 vote.
The plan presented Thursday night was the school board’s latest best attempt at finding a compromise between those parents who continue to adamantly oppose a mask mandate and those parents who, in increasing numbers, are calling for masks to be mandated by the board.
The result is a complicated, graduated mitigation strategy generally tailored to each of the schools in the district. The formula, for both the length of time students will be required to wear a mask and time a student will be in quarantine, is generally based on the number(s) of students in a given “classroom/cohort” or “team” who test positive, the proximity of others to that student, vaccine status of other students and staff associated with that classroom/cohort along with provisions for additional steps to be taken should the situation ultimately qualify as an outbreak.
The board held off on voting on the revised reopening plan until all members of the public, both in-person and online, had a chance to comment. The comments, which totaled approximately 25 in all, were not geared toward the plan as much as a continuation of the debate over whether a mask mandate should be implemented or not.
However, in a change from previous meetings, those in favor of a mandate outnumbered those who opposed masks, at all, roughly by a margin of 15 to 10. Whether this indicates a shift in the public attitude about the mandate or is simply a matter of those who favor mandates being more comfortable or more motivated to speak out is not known.
The most sobering moment of the meeting was when Donna Wehe, Director of Communications for SLV Health, read aloud a letter written to the board, parents and members of the community by Dr. Justin Buchholz, D.O., Medical Director, Internal Medicine SLV Health Regional Medical Center and Conejos County Hospital.
The letter read, in part, “My colleagues and I have seen far too many tragic deaths and lives lost in our community than people will ever realize. I just finished a 10 day stretch working nights at SLV health and three patients passed, all unvaccinated. This rate of fatality is not new. Sadly, almost all of our deaths in the last two months have been unvaccinated patients. It is heart-wrenching to be caring for an actively dying patient who regrets not taking covid seriously by wearing a mask and getting vaccinated. Countless times they ask, and often beg, for the vaccine but it is too late. This leaves families filled with regret and remorse. For several very memorable patients, this has literally been their last words. We have seen husbands and wives die within days of each other.
"One of my patients did/ do all the right things; vaccination, masking, you name it. Unfortunately, an elementary-age grandchild brought the virus home and unknowingly spread the virus to the patient and later tested positive for Covid-19. The patient started showing symptoms and came to the hospital when it became difficult to breathe but died 4 days after admission. This is why it is so important that we make our schools a part of the conversation. Although children may not seemingly be affected on the same level as adults, they are certainly vectors of transmission.
“We implore the community as a whole to assist in helping stop the spread of this virus.”
At the end of the evening, the ASD Board of Education voted to implment the “revised reopening plan” in a vote of 4:1.
Dr. Buchholz’s letter will appear, in its entirety, on the Valley Courier website.
People interested in seeing the revised reopening plan in detail should go to Home - Alamosa School District, No. Re-11J -> Board of Educaton -> Board Docs -> Meetings (upper right tab) -> 2021 -> October 7 -> View the agenda -> Reopening plan