How East Otero Schools and Otero Junior College have survived during COVID-19

Ken Hamrick
LA Junta Tribune
The East Otero School District took several steps in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Otero School District leaders have reason for optimism about the school year,

"It went as well as we could expect," Superintendent Rick Lovato said. "There were things with distance learning, online school and the alternative school that we were forced to do and I think we needed to look at anyway."

Lovato noted that enrollment dipped a little bit, but not to the levels the school was anticipating at the beginning of the pandemic.

Overall, Lovato feels the district did a good job of getting ahead of changes thanks to directing the federal and state funds it received toward technology.

"Now that we're getting to have some activities and the kids have been face-to-face for a while and we're kind of learning how to handle the quarantine situations a little better," Lovato said. "I think that we've done pretty well. I'm really proud of the way the staff and everybody in the community united and figured out a way for us to keep going."

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Lovato said that there was a mixed opinion on how the students handled the situation.

"Up and down, there were mixed opinions on the online versus in-person," Lovato said. "But I think socially, I really think they missed out on that interaction and most of the kids have really responded well to being in-person."

Lovato said, "it's a 90-10 split," comparing students' opinion to being in-person or remote.

When it comes to masking up and staying socially distant, Lovato is proud of the effort made by his students.

"I think our boys and girls have been really good about honoring the mask rules and staying compliant without complaining," Lovato said. "So I'm really proud of them for that. The kids want to see each other and they want to do normal things that kids do. The more that we can do that, the better they feel."

Lovato said that the pandemic has given the district a sense of perspective.

"It grounded us all a little bit," Lovato said. "Some of the things we've stressed in past years seem really, really trivial compared to what we had to deal with. So I think that our perspective and our focus are better."

Lovato stressed that the pandemic could still be rough on teachers.

Recent reports in Colorado have found that nearly 40% of teachers in the state are considering not returning to the profession fully next school year.

"I do want to express a concern and a worry for teachers all over the country, but especially here," Lovato said. "The profession is going to struggle with this moving forward. Finding teachers, substitute teachers, bus drivers, custodians is going to be more difficult in future years because of this. So I really think that's an important thing for us to go forward."

Lovato also gave an update on the La Junta High School swimming pool, which malfunctioned in February.

"The mechanical systems and everything really needed upgraded," Lovato said. "The quote that we have is about $75,000 roughly to do what we need to do to get it up and running. That's what we're going to push for."

And it's not just public schools that have been impacted by the pandemic as it's also had an effect at Otero Junior College.

"As you can imagine like everybody else, the mental health our staff and our students is our major concern," said OJC President Timothy Alvarez. "In our COVID recovery plan, we needed to make some adjustments which played out really well. It kept our students and our staff as safe as we could."

Alvarez said that the students handled the situation well despite the ongoing changes.

One thing the college made sure to get ahead of the curve on was testing, which Alvarez believes was important to keep students safe.

"We've been doing testing with our students over the past five weeks now," Alvarez said. "I believe it was the right thing to do. In fact, we were one of the few, if not the only, community college that's doing testing with our students.

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"We're trying to catch all of these students who are asymptomatic so we can get them isolated or quarantined. So far, we have no positive cases yet for this week. So it shows that through testing, the isolation and containment, we can keep this under control."

For the most part, the instruction at OJC has been remote learning.

Some programs remain in-person like the CTE program, welding, cosmetology, law enforcement academy and nursing. Those programs take precautions with face guards and temperature checks on a daily basis.

When it comes to remote learning, it's not just getting information via a computer.

"I don't want people to get the impression that online learning is just students accessing everything through a computer," Alvarez said. "A lot of it is light streaming and they're doing their lesson plans and lectures live. We're doing everything we can to make sure that students are being engaged in more than mostly learning online."

Despite the online learning, Alvarez said OJC's retention rates and student pass rates have surpassed last year's numbers.

Alvarez said there are other exciting things that happened at OJC last year, including a Title V grant worth $3 million to help all students receive a professional mentor, along with other grants.

"A total of 2/3 of our students are first generation, 40% are considered low income. We just received a RISE Grant, which is something the governor put out there," Alvarez said. "It will allow us to do more concurrent enrollment and hopefully get more access to the school.

"We also just received a grant which is called OER, which is Open Educational Resources. What we're trying to do is to try to minimize the cost for students, but also give them access to materials online. It will save students money so they don't have to buy textbooks. That's another process we're working on to try to reduce costs, but also give them quality and relevant literature and materials."

Tribune-Democrat reporter Ken Hamrick can be reached by email atKHamrick1@gannett.com