Midway through the 2020-2021 academic year, uncertainty about COVID-19 and its impact on school operations still looms large in Colorado.
Many students and teachers already are back in classrooms, and more are gradually returning each week as the state pushes districts to offer in-person learning.
Educators, who likely won’t start receiving vaccinations until March, worry about catching the deadly disease. Many parents, excited that their children will be able to see their teachers and friends face-to-face, are nervous classes could move online again if COVID-19 conditions change.
With few significant changes to day-to-day procedures, educators and parents alike are bracing for a spring semester that resembles fall — one marked by frequent disruptions, long hours retooling lesson plans, and constantly shifting indications on whether or not it’s safe to reopen schools.
Senior Thomas Jeffries gets a temperature check before entering the building during the first day of in-person learning at Arvada West High School on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.
But over the course of nearly a dozen recent interviews with families and educators, a new sentiment emerged that wasn’t present prior to the start of the school year: hopefulness. After navigating the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges, both teachers and parents said they are prepared to expect the unexpected, though they hope this semester won’t be as unpredictable as the last.
“We can choose to roll with the punches and do the best we can, or not,” said Annette Green, a special education teacher at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy. “I choose to see the optimism and the best in what we’re doing.”
“Fall was the trial run,” said Katie Winner, parent to two Jeffco Public Schools students. While she doesn’t expect the experience to be much different in the spring, how parents react will be, she said.
“For some that might involve a $5,000-a-semester learning pod with private tutors, and for some that might mean home schooling on their own or dropping out,” she said. “There’s a broad spectrum of options parents might choose to employ including staying with Jeffco and current structure.”
First grade teacher Raven Wattley, top, helps her students hand sanitizing before starting their class at Rose Hill Elementary school in Commerce City on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
Operational obstacles persist
That’s not to say this semester won’t have its challenges. Logistically, schools still have to adapt when students and teachers are quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure. According to school leaders, the biggest hindrance to hosting in-person classes last fall was filling staffing gaps when teachers were in quarantine. And because Colorado faces a shortage of substitutes and other critical positions, even supplemental federal funding may not translate into additional, necessary hires.
Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment updated its quarantine protocols in hopes of preventing these staffing issues. Now, when a case of COVID-19 is detected, schools have the option to use what health officials call “targeted contact identification,” which allows them to send home only those who were within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more instead of a whole cohort of students. In order to use the targeted approach, schools must track illness-related absences, enforce mask wearing at all times except meals and implement class seating charts, among other safety measures.
Still, within the first weeks of Denver-area students returning to school, hundreds have been quarantined. In the Cherry Creek School District, more than 600 students and staff members are currently in quarantine, as are about 1,400 in Denver Public Schools, according to the districts’ coronavirus dashboards.
Gov. Jared Polis has promised educators, students and their families access to more than 1 million rapid COVID-19 tests monthly to not only conduct surveillance testing and find cases before they reach schools, but also to potentially shorten quarantine stays. A negative test result can enable adults and kids to return to school in less than two weeks, according to the state’s new guidelines.
Students of Rose Hill Elementary head to their assigned entrance with their parents at the school in Commerce City on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
While that encourages Littleton High School teacher Will Daniel, it does little to calm his anxiety about returning for face-to-face instruction. His district offers free COVID-19 testing, which Daniel has undergone every two weeks since August. That offers peace of mind, he said, but only for so long.
Last fall, Daniel was asked to leave school midday and quarantined after a positive case showed up in his cohort. He said that unless a teacher is symptomatic, the expectation is they will instruct class from afar while they wait out the isolation period. The whiplash of moving from in-person to virtual learning is hard on both students and teachers, not to mention more work. The thought of preparing two weeks worth of lesson plans for a sub to fill in is also “terrifying,” Daniel said.
“My gut is that we will probably be bouncing forth more than we were in the fall,” he said. “You can’t help but worry when there are (students) being told to stay home and we haven’t even put them back into school.”
Rachel Adler, a teacher at Swigert International School in Denver, agrees. Her fifth-graders began attending in-person classes Jan. 11, and she is equally as excited to see them as she is nervous about the virus. Adler expects more consistency in how kids learn this semester, which is a good thing — as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of her or her students’ health.
“Seems we’re in it for the long haul,” she said, “for better and worse.“
A student walks the halls between classes during the first day of in-person learning at Arvada West High School on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.
Any face time is a good thing
Last semester’s experience with remote learning has mom Tracy Paskoff on edge. Though she originally enrolled her first-grader Hayes in Jeffco Public Schools’ virtual program because of the health risks, it proved to be “an unmitigated disaster.” Hayes suffered emotionally, breaking down when he didn’t want to do an assignment or if he made a mistake.
After Paskoff was able to transfer her son to in-person learning, Hayes’ demeanor changed. He was happier, more engaged, and when he had unfinished work, he was able to sit with his teacher to get assistance. Those weeks of face-to-face instruction in the fall made all the difference when Jeffco went remote after Thanksgiving.
“The fact he was in the classroom with his teacher and with these kids before remote learning started, I think he was more into the community of it,” Paskoff said. “That helped a lot with feeling obligated to do the work.”
Educators like Amanda Cameron, a Spanish teacher at Arvada’s Ralston Valley High School, are making the most of their face time with students, given it’s unclear how long it may last. Though managing a hybrid schedule is difficult, it’s easier to keep in touch with students when they’re in the building part-time, she said. Cameron is also infusing as much fun into her classes as she can to keep them engaged no matter the learning format.
“Relationship building is at the core of any kind of success,” she said. “So I’ve been trying to work as hard as I can to get students to build relationships with each other, so they’re comfortable with each other and they can take advantage of that small window of time they do have in person to make connections and get stimulation of being around other humans.”
Many parents on social media expressed how reopening schools this semester has improved their children’s moods, even in just the first few weeks. Sumeet Garg is among those who have noticed a marked change in his sons, who attend Denver Public Schools. Last semester, his third-grader struggled with motivation to do coursework, while his sixth-grader felt isolated from his friends.
Now when they come home it’s with big smiles and excitement to talk about their day.
“We send them to school with a mask and they’ve reported that kids are wearing masks in their classes… I’ve felt very safe with protocols at schools to keep the kids protected,” Garg said. “I’m optimistic that they will be able to continue an in-person option through the end of the school year.”
Orchestra student Madisyn Deidel plays her violin during the first day of in-person learning at Arvada West High School on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Students at AWHS will learn by both in-person and online formats as they adhere to strict schedules that separate the school’s some 1,800 students.
Trying to account for the unknowns
When it comes to how the pandemic will play out this spring, many unknowns remain. A new, more contagious COVID-19 variant was discovered in Colorado in December, though so far it hasn’t seemed to have influenced how schools operate. To date, 10 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been confirmed in the state.
That weighs heavily on Jennifer Smith-Daigle, who has three teenage sons who attend Cherokee Trail High School in the Cherry Creek School District. The boys would have liked to enroll virtually, but some of their essential classes, such as advanced placement courses, were not offered online. That Smith-Daigle feels the district has moved away from solid metrics to dictate a learning format has only increased her concerns about school safety.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention published reports that found minimal transmission of the disease in schools when mask-wearing, social-distancing and other safety protocols are in place. Special education teacher Green said administrators are militantly enforcing these rules at her school. Because of that, she feels safe in the building where she sees a small group of students in-person five days a week.
Of course, few efforts would be as reassuring as being able to get vaccinated, teachers said. This week, state officials announced educators would be the first among essential workers eligible for inoculation under the second part of Phase 1B of the state’s rollout plan, but the timeline still calls for those first shots to be distributed beginning in March.
Until then, it’s up to schools and communities to work together to ensure students’ success, said Brooke Williams, president of the Jefferson County Education Association.
“I really believe that we’ve taken every precaution we possibly can,” Williams said. “No one wants to be in classrooms more than educators. We really love our students and want to be with them. I’m hopeful we can do this safely.”
This content was originally published here.