Gunnison County’s response to the 1918 flu epidemic received renewed attention early on in the coronavirus pandemic. Through strict bans on visitors, like prohibiting travelers from stepping off trains, and the threat of jail time, the county mostly dodged the effects of an influenza strain that killed tens of millions of people around the world.
But it quickly became apparent last spring that we would not see a repeat performance. Gunnison County recorded some of the highest per capita infection rates in the country. With the virus running rampant here while many other parts of the U.S. had yet to feel its effects, county public health orders focused on preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed rather than on keeping our case numbers at zero. We were not an exception but a leader, with our policies quickly mirrored around the state.
But with the success of our schools and Western Colorado University in the fall semeste; we have reason to declare ourselves an exception again. Keeping students in class-rooms in 2020 is a far more complex and impressive achievement than police keeping passengers on trains in 1918.
Neighboring communities like Montrose and Salida shifted in and out of remote learning this past fall. Nearly every week the Montrose County School District announced a school bus, a classroom, a cohort or an entire school that would have to learn by laptop starting the next day. It was a lurching situation that put parents in the impossible situation that many Gunnison Valley parents experienced last spring do you go to work to keep the lights on or stay at home to make sure kids are cared for and learning?
Thanks to leadership, foresight and residents who have taken the threat of community spread seriously, in-person learning became the norm for the Gunnison Watershed School District in the fall.
Another factor was surely luck Despite dedicated staff, great leadership from the district administration, close coordination with Gunnison County Public Health and students who faithfully wore masks in classrooms, the virus is contagious enough (and in many cases asymptomatic enough) to have slipped into the school system and caused the kind of outbreak that kept students at home across the state.
Western, although parties and maybe athletic events led to a classroom-closing outbreak in November, should be proud to have made it through almost an entire semester of in-person instruction. The university’s provision of free testing just before the start of the fall break was the right thing to do so that student’s home communities could be protected from further spread over winter break.
As the new semester kicks off, Gunnison Watershed schools are in the exceptional category again. Most school districts across the state are starting with remote learning and plans to gradually bring more grades back into the classroom.
Colleges across the state are taking a similar approach. The University of Colorado-Boulder will start remote for at least the first month, aiming to reopen its campus in mid-February. Colorado State University will start remote and begin bringing some students back late this month. Fort Lewis College will bring students back for in-person classes in February following a week of free testing for students and staff in late January.
Western will return to inperson learning on the first day of classes, Monday, Jan. 11 and with a new random testing scheme in place. Students and staff can count their blessings as they use the Paul M. Rady building for the first time. One such blessing is education in a community that has proven to be exceptional after all.
(Sam Liebl can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)