Colorado educators look to apply lessons learned to spring semester
Colorado’s education system has endured immense stress this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on school operations and exposed glaring inequities in communities’ access to academic, technological, health, food, and housing resources.
Most of the issues facing public education — such as a shortage of substitute teachers and inconsistent WiFi service throughout the state — are not new, say educators and regulators. But the pandemic has renewed the opportunity to learn from and address the problems in a big way, beginning in the spring semester.
“What COVID has really exposed to us is how siloed we are in approach to solutions,” said Vernon Jones Jr., executive director of Denver Public Schools’ Northeast Innovation Zone. “That’s probably been the biggest revelation, is that these heavy lifts require us lifting together.”
One of the biggest challenges to address when school resumes next month is how students will learn. Though different districts took different approaches in the fall, most experienced some degree of whiplash shifting students between in-person and online education in response to both COVID-19 cases that cropped up in classrooms and broader community transmission.
Gov. Jared Polis repeatedly advocated for schools to reopen for in-person learning, despite many leaders saying it’s near-impossible logistically given state-imposed quarantine guidelines. Polis recently formed a task force to revisit those rules and others, in hopes getting kids back in classrooms in the New Year.
Denver Public Schools, for one, is planning to phase students back into face-to-face learning, starting with its youngest kids and eventually welcoming back middle and high schoolers by Feb. 1 — health conditions permitting, the district said. Douglas County School District is taking a similar approach and hopes to have some in-person learning available to all students by March 1.
While it’s up to school leaders to decide how, if at all, to reopen schools, Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes said the state plans to “double down” on helping them so do by providing personal protection equipment, updating safety protocols and advocating for staff access to the COVID-19 vaccine. The pandemic has only exacerbated academic inequities and reopening schools is the first step to closing those gaps, she said.
“In some of our communities that are hit harder by the virus, that has meant it’s been harder for them to get back to in-person learning because their virus loads in their community are higher, their percent positivity is higher,” Anthes said. “When you have that, then it’s harder to open schools. It’s kind of a detrimental cycle that we’re really trying to prevent in the next semester.”
If the fall semester was any indication, students likely will have some remote learning in the spring, whether they opt to enroll virtually full-time or have to transition temporarily due to quarantine protocols.
When a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, those determined to be close contacts must quarantine and continue learning from home, according to the state’s targeted quarantine rules. Depending on each school’s disease prevention measures, an entire class or cohort may be required to quarantine.
In the fall, so many teachers were forced to quarantine that many district leaders said it was impossible to effectively host in-person classes. Several schools closed entirely for two-week periods due to quarantine-related staffing issues. That’s why it’s essential to continue refining digital platforms and how teachers use them, Jones said.
Both educators and students have become more proficient with technology, leveraging digital breakout rooms and chats to more deeply engage, he said. But success next semester will hinge on providing more staff training and expanding connectivity to underserved areas of Denver and the rest of Colorado.
“The challenge is before schools and districts, parents, all players to make sure that every delivery platform is good and that we’re not giving one group quality and another group less than that,” Jones said, adding he hopes K-12 will continue to offer a fully online option much like higher education institutions.
Tamara Acevedo, deputy superintendent of academics at Denver Public Schools, agreed that focusing on an equitable experience for all students is vital this coming semester. She’s working to ensure schools have consistent schedules and teachers have adequate resources for live instruction, among other things, so students have similar experiences learning both in-person and virtually.
Academically, educators are trying to figure out how to make up for lost ground with the limited time they have left in the school year. In DPS, that means narrowing the scope to prioritize critical content and encouraging teachers to weave in bits and pieces that may have been missed throughout spring instruction, Acevedo said. That includes focusing heavily on social-emotional learning.
“One of the things that has been important is supporting our educators to have dedicated social-emotional learning time, but also to practice what we call transformative social-emotional-academic learning, where social-emotional learning is embedded throughout instructional day,” Acevedo said. Think mindfulness exercises and helping students process anxiety, grief and other experiences related to the pandemic, she said.
Mental health likely will be a priority in districts across Colorado. According to a recent survey by the Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative, 90% of district leaders said teacher mental health is their top staff priority. High schoolers’ and middle schoolers’ mental health ranked the second and third highest among student priorities, behind only K-3 reading loss, the survey found.
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of Colorado Education Association, said teachers are overwhelmed by new expectations during the pandemic, such as preparing lessons for both face-to-face and online formats, and possibly switching between the two at a moment’s notice. That most districts don’t provide clear and transparent metrics to dictate when school buildings are safe to be open is only compounding the problem, she said.
“Our educators are taking on tremendous workloads. For some, the work has tripled or quadrupled. But most importantly I think we need to address what we’re hearing from a large portion of the workforce around depression, exhaustion and depletion,” Baca-Oehlert said. “I’m very worried about the long-term impact this will have on our ability to retain teachers.”
The impacts are already being felt, as many teachers opt to retire, take time off or leave the profession. Quarantine-related staffing issues forced many schools to shut down in the fall because they didn’t have substitutes to fill in. In the Denver, northwest Colorado and southwest Colorado regions, 0% of respondents to the state education department’s survey said they had a sufficient pool of substitutes.
“You start to see those cracks in the teacher shortage turn into bigger problems,” Anthes said. “We absolutely need to follow the health and safety protocols because that’s critical and important to keep our staff safe — and we want schools to be open. When you put both those things together, sometimes the math doesn’t work out.”
Some bright spots
Not all the lessons to come from the unusual 2020-2021 school year have been negative. Having a variety of learning formats, for example, inspired discussions about how districts can personalize learning for individual students, Anthes said.
“That hybrid model, I think we’ve shown we can do it on a larger scale now,” she said. “I hope we can pivot off of that and think about more personalized learning approaches for students and families.”
Educators also have proven adaptable and resilient, pivoting to a new way of teaching on a dime. That’s also given way to innovation, Acevedo said.
One first-grade teacher in DPS had students submit individual video questions to which she would record video answers, so they could access her responses even if class wasn’t in session. Others are finding creative ways to teach the arts from a distance. Baca-Oehlert’s daughter is learning to play clarinet, and she’s been amazed at how the squeaks and squeals of the reed instrument have improved over the semester despite the band teacher conducting from a screen.
Innovation shouldn’t stop there, Jones said. Given the stress families, teachers and administrators have been under this year, he believes taking a humane approach to education will benefit the system long-term. This academic year isn’t like any other in recent history, so why are schools still operating largely like they have in the past?
“Folks are still stuck in the traditional school mindset, like we have to have this many minutes of this and this is required for graduation,” he said. “Let’s throw all that out the window and really talk about, what is the best thing for children to experience?”
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