Denver Post Teen Columnists on how schools are handling COVID-19

Young Coloradans are incredibly passionate about this election, but many can’t vote themselves. So we asked teens what they wanted voters to keep in mind as they cast their ballots this November.

DENVER POST TEEN COLUMNISTS

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Here’s what they have to say about how schools and other local leadership are handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Read what teens have to say about the presidential race, Colorado’s senate race, climate change and policing in schools.

Have you ever tried to wrangle a hyperactive seven year old into sitting through a zoom meeting? Found yourself bribing your child to complete five minutes’ worth of online work? If you happen to be one of the many parents stuck at home playing teacher, you are not alone.

Getting a child to absorb any online learning is no easy feat, particularly for younger children accustomed to doing hands-on activities. For children with learning disabilities the situation becomes ten times worse, and the “information highway” turns into something more resembling gridlock traffic on I-70. So what are the parents of disabled children to do?

My younger brothers have learning disabilities. It is already difficult for them to absorb information in school, but through a computer, it is practically impossible. With no in-school learning in sight, it doesn’t seem my brothers will get the education afforded to everyone under federal law.

“School days” are reserved for watching my dad’s blood pressure steadily rise as he tries to teach. Online learning has been a struggle not only for our family, but for families across the United States. It’s not only less effective but causes financial strain on parents stuck teaching their kids instead of working.

In-person learning is not without its own risks. It’s hard to imagine a school environment in which 500 children manage to keep masks on and stay six feet apart from each other at all times. There doesn’t seem to be an effective way to bring kids back to school without exposing them to COVID-19.

Amongst the parents I babysit for, there’s been discussion of hiring private educators to teach their children. While perhaps one solution to guaranteeing a quality education, hiring a teacher presents a whole new set of problems for lower-income families. It costs, on average, $40 an hour to hire a teacher. Eight hours a day, five times a week — the bill becomes more than many can afford.

School districts are doing their best to manage parent and student expectations. There is not one clear-cut solution everyone can get behind. Online learning is inconvenient and ineffective, while in-person learning may spread COVID. Speaking as someone who had their senior year of high school shut down and their graduation ruined, I believe that we need to stay six feet apart, keep our masks on, and vote for someone who will give our children the education they deserve.

— Aja D Bos, 18, Fairview High School

On August 24th, I threw the last four months away and stomped on them. Those days of loneliness and struggle, all for nothing. I spent months tucked away, not to protect myself, but to prevent the deaths of others. And on that smoky Monday, every minute was made worthless. What choice did I have? In-person or going completely online. Access to an equal education as my peers, or a year of unspecific, unchallenging, and useless classes. A year of extracurriculars thrown away means three more spent paying off college. A year of simple classes could even mean a simpler future. When it comes down to it, four months wasted is still better than twelve. So sure, there was a “choice,” but was there really? I walked into school that first day and saw how the staff hadn’t been fitted with N95s, how the one-way hallways and separated desks were all my district could offer. A high school of 2,000 kids broken into halves and teachers are expected to organize online learning for one group while teaching the other in-person. At the same time.

It makes sense — if my school decreased staff pay and had severe layoffs last year, how can it fund safety procedures now? My district can’t possibly give students the education and protection they deserve while cutting $4.2 million, including 17 people from their central office. And that’s nothing compared to next year’s plans. For 2021-22, $12 million will be slashed if taxpayers don’t approve a last-ditch mill levy increase. $12 million. In one district. For one year. Emergency COVID-19 funding was only a drop in the ocean compared to the baseline money schools need, and it doesn’t hide how K-12 programs can’t keep their heads above the surface regardless of coronavirus.

So, it’s no surprise that half of my district’s high schools have had outbreaks spread like wildfire. But, like me, what choices did the district have? The administration isn’t at fault — the money can only be stretched so thin. It’s Colorado’s fault, and Colorado can do better. This state is better than the $9 billion withheld from schools since 2009. We’re better than this, and the voters know it too.

— Leah Grier, 15, Arapahoe High School

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the outrageous year that 2020 has been, with almost every month providing a new surprise, event, or change to our everyday lives. As a student, if someone had told me that I would be spending my sophomore year of high school meeting my teachers through Google Meets, I would have laughed. If someone had told me that a global pandemic would sweep through the world, taking hundreds of thousands of lives with it, I would never have believed it.

At first, I was surprised and angry that I would be starting the school year online. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that for the safety of students, teachers, and parents, this is necessary. Schools that have reopened are already facing problems as COVID-19 inevitably finds its way into their buildings, jeopardizing the health of anyone who is inside. And while the negative effects of infection are less severe in younger demographics, the risk of transmission to family, teachers, staff, and at-risk relatives and friends is the real reason to fear in-person learning. Although no one seems particularly happy about virtual classes, they reduce the risk of students bringing infection home along-side their homework.

In my family, masks and social distancing have been expected, not only because it is the most proven way to stop the spread, but also because my mother is “at-risk”. This means that if one of us brings it home, the health impacts would be devastating. Every time I pass someone in public who is not wearing a mask, I am terrified at the thought that they could have it without knowing. That is the scariest part of this all, the not knowing. While at school, checking to see if students were infected would be even harder due to the less severe symptoms demonstrated in younger people. On top of that, wearing a mask for up to eight hours a day would be difficult for everyone, especially younger students who are not used to having to wear one. It’s obvious that not everyone enjoys sitting in front of their computer for hours a day, but the alternative would be so much worse. Until this is under control, schools should not reopen.

— Ella Bloch, 15, Denver East High School

The usually crowded courtyard and cafeteria are scattered with students here and there. Classrooms are completely silent as teachers take roll. Conversations in and out of classes are quiet, almost non-existent. Fewer people show up to school every week with COVID cases growing and students being sent home to quarantine.

It feels ominous being back in a place that was once filled with constant screaming and laughter high only to see it empty, silent, and uneasy.

More than anything, there is one constant thought running through every person’s mind: when will we be sent home full time? Everyone knows it’s not a matter of if, but when. Unfortunately for many students like myself, that just feels like a ticking bomb waiting to explode.

That fallout means online learning, which to put it lightly, is a disaster. Sure, only interacting with my friends with masks on and separated from each other at school feels surreal and unnatural, but if it means I’m not forced to go home full time, it’s worth it. The alternative involves my parents bursting into my room every half hour to check in on me to make sure I’m still okay and forcing myself to stare at my computer screen all day without absorbing any information.

Having the constant thought lingering in my head that I might be forced into this option seems like a nightmare, and the only thing preventing that from happening is people actually wanting to take action and deciding not to gather in large groups without masks when they don’t have to. But realistically and sadly, I know this is asking for a lot.

I know people are tired. We’re tired of quarantine, of not having things go back to normal, and of having to halt life plans during such a crucial time. Trust me, so am I. As a senior, I want nothing more than to finish this last year before I leave for college as normally as possible, but everyone is sacrificing something right now.

If people really want to prevent things from getting worse and making things go back to normal, doing the right thing is as easy as staying at home when you can, and wearing a mask when you have to leave and not gathering in large groups. And even more importantly, voting for people who will help enforce these things.

— Jane McCauley, 17, Cherry Creek High School

My peers and I are taking wagers on how long school is going to be in-person. As a rising high school senior, I’m heartbroken about losing out on a year I’ve been working so hard to get to. As a future college student, I’m mortified about having to undertake the seemingly impossible task of college applications from home. As a human being, I can see no other safe way to move forward.

For the most part the cavalier attitudes of those in positions of power is frustrating. It’s not simple to conflate educators who are so slow to learn from the lessons from other districts and the risk we run in doing this incorrectly. Across the nation young people are infecting classrooms in days, safety guidelines are being explicitly ignored, and teachers are being hospitalized. Running the gamut and hoping for the best when the risks are so high is irresponsible at best and unequivocally cruel at worst.

In Douglas County, there are two options for students going back to school, they’re both seriously flawed. Students can do full time online learning that is only facilitated by teachers, for the most part none of the courses will be collaborative with students’ peers, and there’s a serious limit on the most advanced classes offered to students. When I signed up for my classes in January, I etched my schedule with almost all AP classes, only 1 of which is offered online.

Which leaves me, and so many other high achieving students in Douglas County, with an online and in school hybrid schooling option. The Douglas County School District wants students to go to school only two days a week in “cohorts” hoping to limit exposure and capacity, the other three days of the week will be online and independent learning. However, that means that 1,000 students will still be in my high school every day, and because of budget cuts, we’ve been over-capacity for about a decade now, meaning my school will be just 200 students shy of its intended 1200 student capacity every day. “Daily cleanings” and “providing teachers with monthly cleaning supplies” will not suffice in curbing the spread likely to occur in hundreds of teenagers.

There is no perfect way to go back to school this year, but there are safer, less expensive, more informed ways. Districts need to prioritize safety and just have students stay home until we can go back without reservation. None of us want to deal with the mania of education alone, but then again none of us want to be living through a pandemic either, but we all want to save lives, a way we can do that, the only way we can do that, is to not risk them in the first place.

— Leigh Walden, 17, Castle View High School

Students should not have to choose between their education and the safety of their loved ones. COVID-19 poses a particular risk to those with weakened immune systems and the elderly and many students live with someone who meets those criteria. While partially reopening schools and taking precautions such as masks and reduced class size lowers the risk enough for some families’ comfort, others are making the decision to return with much higher stakes.

Homeschooling is not always an option. Many students come from single-parent or two-working-parent families. Higher-level classes and courses for high schoolers may be beyond the level at which parents are equipped to teach. There is also the issue of families with multiple school-aged children; parents would have to split their attention between multiple grades and subjects. Those families most endangered by COVID are often the ones most unable to homeschool due to the added strain of caring for elderly dependants or those with immune compromising conditions. It is unfair to ask students to significantly reduce their quality of education by consenting to homeschool in unfavorable circumstances.

Even in school districts where students have the option of online school, the decision can still come with setbacks or reduced quality of education. In Poudre School District, for example, students opting to learn exclusively online are unable to participate, continue, or enroll in the IB program, an advanced high school program akin to AP but without the cost, even if they spent their previous high school years putting in the extra time and effort. This leaves students scrambling. Gifted scholars are left with the option of graduating without the additional credentials exclusive universities are looking for or needing to find the money for the unexpected cost of AP classes at a time when many families are struggling financially.

Be there no mistake, the gradual reopening of highschools works well for some students and in some cases helps take additional pressure off of them and their families. However, school districts cannot operate under the assumption that all teenagers are living and learning in the same circumstances. As Colorado decides how and when to revive its education programs, we must provide options for all students in every situation.

— Lucy Gregory, 16, Poudre High School

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