COVID lessons public schools could learn from private school that stayed open

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BROOMFIELD, Colo. (KDVR) — When many school districts across Colorado were deciding what to do for the fall 2020 school year, one school knew since June that they were going to open for in-person learning.

Despite COVID-19, Holy Family High School in Broomfield opened and stayed open all of fall semester.

So, how did the school do it? During the summer, a committee worked with local hospitals, health officials and other professionals to outfit the school to make it as safe as possible for all those who enter the building.

Every morning since mid-August, kids at the private high school walk past a $25,000 thermal camera that takes their temperature and beeps if anyone is over 100.4 degrees.

But it wasn’t all about new technology. A senior at Holy Family, Michael White says it was also about students taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.

“Especially as seniors, my class was able to set the precedence that, hey, this is a privilege to be here and we need to take it seriously,” White says.

White says he hated learning by Zoom when the pandemic first hit. He and his fellow peers were so happy to return, there’s been positive peer pressure among the students not to party on weekends or be less safe off campus than they are on campus. 

“Definitely, 100%, especially with the athletics and theater department and fine arts going on, it was a big push, because we missed on those activities last year. To be able to be in person and celebrate each other’s victories is what being a Holy Family tiger is all about,” says White.

Not only did the school install a new thermal camera, it created one-way hallways based on health guidelines suggesting people are less likely to absorb respiratory droplets from an infected person if they walk in the same direction. The school even installed a $100,000 special air purification system thanks to a generous donor.

Kids are also spaced apart and some classrooms, like science, have dividers. Masks are also a requirement, but students in choir are assigned special masks designed for singing while minimizing the spread of droplets.

During lunch, the lunchroom has a to-go menu, so kids generally eat outside or in the gymnasium spaced apart.

Principal Mike Hauptly says it took many months of planning and preparing.

“We looked at models that we’ve seen over in Europe with schools being successful over there,” Hauptly said.

Hauptly has never seen kids so happy to be at school. His No. 1 reason for re-opening in the fall wasn’t because of academics, though obviously important, it was because of mental health. 

“The workload of our guidance counselor, who deals with our students’ mental health issues, just went through the roof this spring, with kids dealing with depression, anxiety of loneliness, some suicidal ideation that really spiked, and we can’t have that,” says Hauptly. He also says, “Their spirits were troubled this spring, and we felt that was something we really needed to attend to, so I say the mental health of our students was our primary concern.”

Brenda Smolky, a parent who has a senior daughter at Holy Family couldn’t agree more. She saw first-hand how miserable her daughter was last spring when the school went remote. Smolky says reopening this year was critical for her senior as she considers life after graduation.

“It’s been really essential for her to have access to her college counselor, not only the social emotional side of things being able to communicate with other adults that are there to support you, but to be able to have in-person zoom calls with the universities and to be able to figure out where you want to go to school — you can’t do that from your bedroom.”

Smolky says parents, staff and students knew there was a risk in staying open. However, she feels validated knowing so far there have been just six coronavirus cases among all the students and staff. Less than 1% of the school community of 700 students and 100 staff became infected, and there’s no evidence any of those cases were connected to each other, let alone the school. 

That’s why Smolky is encouraging other schools to open up.

“Try and open up if you can. Certainly, it’s not going to be perfect. There’s going to be bumps along the way, but I would do anything to make sure these students get back in school,” Smolky says. 

Nearby Legacy High School, which is in the Adams 12 school district, did open for 3 weeks on a hybrid schedule in the fall, but quickly shut down when COVID-19 spiked in Colorado. However, the school had a total of 10 presumed or positive cases during that time, which is still less than 1% of the school’s student population of 2,359.

The few kids who did test positive and those identified as close contacts at Holy Family High School had to stay home for two weeks and learn via zoom until their quarantine met the required CDC guidelines. However, if the school building had been closed to everyone last semester, that would have meant a different risk, both for how kids learn and how they maintained social connections.

“It has meant the world that Holy Family has been able to be back in school this semester, because you know I saw the seniors last year, and they struggled being online, but being in-person, I still have that feeling I’m connected with my classmates, and I know that they missed out on that last year,” says White. 

Holy Family has some obvious advantages that not all public schools have: smaller class sizes and especially that $100,000 donation for an air purification system, which is similar to what is installed at hospitals. Also, just last week, the Broomfield Public Health Department began vaccinating teachers and staff over the age of 70 and hopes to finish vaccinating all staff in March.

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