Every student becomes a home-schooler Monday when classes resume in the Pikes Peak region after spring break.
Creating a semblance of normalcy will be a primary objective, say educators and parents gearing up for remote learning after the coronavirus shut down all public and private schools statewide through April 17.
Setting a schedule and a routine are key, said Madeline Goldman, a fourth-grade teacher at Manitou Springs Elementary.
First thing on a typical Monday at school, Goldman’s 9- and 10-year-old students circle up on a carpet, talk about their weekend, share a few other things about themselves and then begin the day’s lessons.
“We’ve grown into a big, supportive family,” she said. “A lot of students are already missing the camaraderie with each other and their teachers, the ability to give high-fives and make eye contact.”
Goldman will start the electronic school day doing the same type of group sharing. Video conferencing will enable students to participate in classroom conversation as they tune in on an iPad or home computer.
“We’re going to have to take a trial day and experiment with it,” she said.
Local superintendents shut down schools for two weeks after March 13, and teachers scrambled to develop remote instruction plans for the week preceding spring break.
With Gov. Jared Polis now prohibiting in-person instruction through mid-April, the distance-learning format moves into full-blown operation this week.
It won’t be easy, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said in a letter sent to parents last week.
“We fully understand that this shift will be challenging for parents, students, and teachers alike, and we are committed to being as flexible as possible to support all families who we know are dealing with significant disruptions not associated with school and learning,” he said.
In recent weeks, Polis has said it’s “increasingly unlikely” schools will reopen this semester.
Cooper said in an interview that neither the governor nor districts are making “preemptive decisions or giving false hope.”
The same but different
While most of today’s students do some education online, such as research, homework, getting assignments from teachers or checking grades, most do not engage in full-time online instruction.
It’s a concept as novel as this coronavirus.
“This is brand new for every single one of us,” said Missi Thomson, kindergarten teacher at Manitou Springs Elementary School in Manitou Springs School District 14.
For younger students who need help with technology, Thomson is offering Google meetups throughout the day, where up to five kindergartners log on at a time. Students can see the teacher and each other’s faces, which Thomson said is important for comfort and familiarity.
English and math will be key focus subjects for at-home learning, although some schools, including Manitou Springs, integrate science and history curriculumwide.
Goldman will provide one to two hours a day of direct video instruction for her students, including having the class read aloud together. She also will read aloud to students, and then facilitate a discussion about the material.
Building a schedule that includes time for online “recess” where children have free time to talk to one another online with teacher supervision is paramount, Goldman said.
She’s also creating online math tutorial videos, which children can watch at home, and sending emails to update students and pump them up about remote learning.
“I film myself doing a morning message, asking fun questions — send me a photo of your silliest fact — trying to get ahead of the game,” she said.
'We're all learning e-learning'
With lessons, assignments and homework, the remote method is “almost like regular teaching,” said Manitou Springs Elementary School Principal Russ Vogel.
“There’s a bit of a learning curve” for everyone, said Elena Melin, who has four students in Academy District 20 schools.
Melin believes teachers will need to pare down the amount of work they give students because learning at home is harder than being at school, she said.
“There are worksheets you have to print out and figure out how to do, take a picture of what you do and email it back to teachers and get feedback,” she said. “You just don’t have the advantages you do with classroom instruction.”
However, Melin said, during the week before spring break when remote learning took a trial run, teachers were supportive and understanding if students didn’t finish all the work.
“It was more like figuring things out,” said her daughter, Liana Melin, a junior in D-20. “I think it’ll get easier.”
The model also can teach students responsibility. “You have to be in charge of yourself,” Liana said.
And educators have to be creative, said Kristen Driver, principal of Explorer Elementary School in Academy D-20.
“We’re all learning e-learning as we go along,” she said. “We need to extend grace to each other. Parents are at home with kids, teachers are working with online platforms, and we have to make sure we’re not giving kids more than they (can) handle.
“It’s truly now a teacher and parent partnership because we’re asking parents to help with their kids at home.”
That doesn’t mean parents are replacing teachers, Goldman said.
“I’m hearing complaints from working parents that are struggling to find the time to be there for their child,” she said. “My job is to make sure all the questions are answered. Let me do the teaching and instruction. That’s not what we’re expecting of parents.”
The digital divide
For students who do not have internet access or electronic devices at home, some schools are letting students borrow electronic pads and free Wi-Fi hotspots. Some internet providers, such as Comcast, are supplying free connections.
Most schools also are handing out packets of assignments with worksheets — basically the same material as students are getting online — in front of schools this week for parents to pick up.
Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument determined in a survey that about 10% of its 6,650 students do not have a laptop or Chromebook access at home, said Superintendent K.C. Somers.
They’ll be receiving district devices and hotspots, he said.
Some providers, including Comcast and Verizon, are donating connectivity for schools in the region.
While all high school students in Harrison School District 2 have district-issued iPads, elementary and middle school students will receive iPads this week, said Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel.
Between 10% and 15% of D-2’s 11,700 students do not have a device or internet service at home, she said.
She thinks the number is low.
“I’m leery to say a cellphone is access,” Birhanzel said, “and multiple students only have one laptop in the house and several students who use it.”
The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating an already existing “digital divide,” said Colorado Springs School District 11 Superintendent Michael Thomas.
Kindergarten through eighth-grade modules are being printed out for families that don't have technology, which are comparable to what students will be learning online, he said.
“Teachers are learning as we go,” Cheyenne Mountain’s Cooper said.
During remote learning, Cooper’s district has designated Mondays as professional days for teachers to plan lessons together to “make sure our services are integrated and across the line” for every student. That includes those in special-education programs and English language learners.
“Special-education educators are not doing planning separately or in isolation,” Cooper said. “Social workers and occupational therapists are engaging, talking with parents and grade-level teams.”
Educators in Monument are individually contacting families with special-needs children and English language learners to determine needs, Somers said.
“We’re implementing learning plans making sure we’re creating options and supports for students that they are used to getting in a physical environment,” he said.
In Harrison D-2, in which about three-quarters of students are from low-income families, teachers have called every student to inquire about learning needs as well as needs such as food, toiletries and diapers, Birhanzel said.
Many schools around the region also are distributing to-go meals to families who pickup sack lunches and groceries.
“We don’t want to make this extra stressful for families,” Birhanzel said. “We want to partner with families.”
Districts aren’t forgetting about social and emotional needs either, said D-11’s Thomas.
“We’re talking about traditional instructional support, along with our social workers, counselors and psychologists, developing plans for stress management and anxiety management, not just for students but our entire community,” Thomas said.
Online instruction is the best solution in these weeks of community shutdowns, Cheyenne Mountain’s Cooper said, however, “it’s not a fair assessment of student learning and achievement.”
So students’ work will count, but the Colorado Department of Education has suspended spring standardized testing as well as student performance figuring into schools’ accountability plans.
Rest of semester uncertain
Unlike restaurants and service-industry workers, full-time school employees have not been laid off, area superintendents say.
“We plan to pay people per their contracts through the end of this school year,” said D-11’s Thomas.
Custodial staffs have been cleaning school buildings, food service workers have been preparing to-go breakfasts and lunches for parents to pick up, and some staff have been assigned other jobs.
Bus drivers in D-11, for example, are doing grounds work and other maintenance. School resources officers are being deployed to help enforce “stay at home” requirements Polis enacted statewide Thursday, according to Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.
Though high school seniors may be most concerned about prom and graduation, superintendents say uncertainty means decisions about how the rest of this academic year will go aren’t yet being made.
“At this point, the governor’s closed schools through April 17, and we have no idea if we’re going to go back,” Cheyenne Mountain’s Cooper said. “That means we have to make decisions incrementally, and people are going to have to be patient.”