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Learning in the time of COVID-19 — school districts reach out to students and families 

click to enlarge Manitou Springs Elementary School is working with students through online programs and packets. - JEANNE DAVANT
  • Jeanne Davant
  • Manitou Springs Elementary School is working with students through online programs and packets.

Colorado Springs students, parents, teachers and administrators are living in a whole new world these days. Living rooms, dining rooms and kitchen tables are standing in for classrooms. Teachers are using digital programs and apps to instruct and interface with kids.

Administrators are wrestling with issues they’ve never faced before. How can they get families to engage in remote learning? How do they take care of students’ social and emotional needs as well? And how do they honor graduates when traditional ceremonies are banned?

We asked spokespersons for four local districts how their schools are handling learning in the time of coronavirus.

Innovations in teaching

Harrison School District 2, Manitou Springs School District 14, Colorado Springs School District 11 and urban/rural District 49 are offering students and families a choice of instructional methods.

In D-2, as in several other local districts, high school students are using Canvas, an online tool through which teachers can present course modules and students can submit assignments and collaborate with their instructors and other students.

The district’s high schoolers were already familiar with Canvas and are using it to complete their coursework and build upon the skills they learned in their classrooms through the third quarter of the school year, says Christine O’Brien, D-2 public information officer.

Teachers are using programs such as ClassDojo and Seesaw to provide one-on-one instruction and support, O’Brien says in an email.

“Teachers also keep daily office hours for students and parents who may need to check in and provide additional supports,” O’Brien says.

Like D-2, D-11 had to “turn on a dime” when Gov. Jared Polis ordered the state’s schools to close in mid-March, D-11 Communications Director Devra Ashby says.

“We had our remote platform distance learning website up and running the day that we closed” on March 13, Ashby says. “It’s utilized by a lot of our classes and age-level groups … You can choose how many activities your student is willing to do in a day.”

In D-49, “our teachers spent their spring break developing instruction and lesson plans they could deliver using a host of programs and apps vetted by our learning services department,” Director of Communications David Nancarrow says via email. “These include Schoology, Google Classrooms, ST Math [and] Lexia for reading, along with conferencing programs like Hangouts Meet and Zoom.”

Manitou Springs D-14 launched remote learning March 17 and is using Canvas for grades six through 12, as well as Google Meet to connect with students, according to the district’s website.

Technology issues

In D-14, “all of our kids in sixth through 12th grade have access to an iPad, so they were able to access remote learning through those platforms, Superintendent Elizabeth Domangue says. “But we knew that we have some students who do not have access to internet at home, so we provided opportunities for those students to receive [paper] packets ... created by the teachers.”

The packets were mailed to students’ homes and returned to school campuses in a drop box. That’s a common procedure in the other districts as well.

D-49 distributed more than 3,000 digital devices culled from the district’s inventory, including Wi-Fi hotspots and Chromebook laptops and tablets.

As in other districts, “we shared information from local business partners who provided free and reduced-cost wireless service during the public health emergency,” Nancarrow says.

Some District 11 families have qualified for free internet access on the Comcast Essentials website, Ashby says.

“Other cable and internet providers have been offering similar types of deals,” she says.

High school students in D-2 already had laptops and hotspots, so were prepared for the switch to online learning, but the district did not have a device initiative for K-8 students.

“When a family reaches out and requests a device so they can connect virtually with teachers, we are doing our best to provide a device,” O’Brien says. “We are weighing this as a need for next year if we are not back in school in a traditional sense.”

Engaging families

The four school districts have had substantial success in engaging students and their families in online learning, ranging from an estimated 70 percent in D-11 to 80 percent in D-49, 80 to 85 percent in D-2 and close to 95 percent in D-14.

Not all students are engaging in every lesson or every assignment, and the districts are having to develop strategies to increase participation now and help students who fall behind.

“We know there’s going to be a loss of learning,” D-11’s Ashby says. “We continue to reach out to them through our educators.”

The district is looking at ways to offer learning opportunities over the summer for students who need to catch up, and teachers will continue to assess where individual students are in their coursework.

“We will assess all students in the fall to determine where they are and then will work with them to individualize as appropriate,” D-2’s O’Brien says.

Parents’ engagement ranges from close supervision to scant commitment, determined by many factors including time they have available, their abilities and their motivation.

“We understand that this is a challenging time for our families, while many of our parents balance working from home and doing their very best to supervise their students’ progress,” Nancarrow of D-49 says. “We are hearing some frustration with trying to maintain that balance.”

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with families,” D-14’s Domangue says. “We’re just trying to tell them to be a partner with your child … and then work with your child to communicate with your teacher, but we don’t want parents to also be overwhelmed. Overall, I think that our parents are great about reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, this is working, this isn’t working,’ and then we try to make adjustments.”

Meeting students’ needs

The learning component of distance learning turned out to be the easy part. Meeting students’ social and emotional needs has been more difficult.

“We know that the No. 1 need in this environment right now is not academic, it’s social and emotional,” says Ashby of D-11.

The district posted a list of community resources on its website that includes health care tips and suggestions such as how to talk to children about the pandemic.

“We continue to provide meals for our student population at 10 physical sites and five mobile sites,” Ashby says. The other districts are providing take-away meals as well.

D-11 instructors work one-on-one with families of students for whom English is a second language and those with special needs, and has deployed educational assistants to help those families as well.

Another big concern for the districts is that mandatory reporters — people like school personnel, who are required to report suspected cases of neglect or abuse — aren’t having the daily contact with students they had when school was in session. (See p. 8 for a closer look at domestic violence and child abuse in the time of COVID-19.)

El Paso County Public Health and the Department of Human Services have been working with all area school districts, Ashby says, to let them know they might need to be watching for abuse and neglect in different ways.

“We sent out some resources to our teachers from El Paso County Public Health about how they can report and things to be on the lookout for,” Ashby says.

The staff at D-14 had completed mandatory reporting training just a few weeks before schools had to close, “so it was fresh on their minds,” Domangue says.

“In the last week or so, we’ve had an uptick of DHS referrals, I think because there’s just so much stress that’s being added to families,” she says. “And we try to touch base with our teachers to make sure that they’re doing OK during this time, because in addition to changing the way they’re working, they’re also definitely missing those student touch points. They love the kids.”

Graduation plans

For high school seniors, graduation is going to look very different this year. All of the districts are planning virtual graduation events and may follow up with live ceremonies later in the summer.

D-11 high schools’ virtual graduations will be streamed on their websites.

The district is considering an Air Force Academy-style graduation in July, but any such mass gatherings will need to be approved by El Paso County Public Health and other local and state authorities.

D-49 is planning an outdoor ceremony with AFA-style social distancing to honor and celebrate the class of 2020, Nancarrow says.

“We know there is no guarantee we will be able to invite guests,” he says. “We are hosting digital community forums to get our students’ and families’ input on planning a ceremony.”

Domangue says D-14 is collaborating with D-11 and other districts on this and other issues and sharing ideas about what’s working and what could be done better.

“I call them all the time and they call me,” Domangue says. “We’re all going through the same situation, and we’re better together.” 

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