Douglas County School District dives into remote education

Distance learning places new pressures on teachers, parents

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On March 24, Ava Bray was excited to work on school assignments after the Douglas County School District's spring break ended — and even more excited to be doing so from Florida.

The 7-year-old was visiting her grandparents in St. Petersburg when the district announced all schools would temporarily close to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kristen Sortman, Ava's mother, saw the closure as an opportunity for Ava to spend more time with her grandparents while still keeping up with school, and quickly planned for her to stay an additional week.

Paul Bray, Ava's grandfather, said both he and his wife work remotely and were ready to help Ava as she took on learning remotely as well.

“It's a little bit challenging,” Ava said. “It feels kind of weird but it's fun.”

The Brays and their teenage son take turns helping Ava with her schoolwork while soaking up the extra time with their granddaughter, Paul Bray said.

“Anytime we can get with her is a blessing,” he said. “We're just very grateful. So many people can focus on the negatives in the world we live in today, and we're grateful thanks to technology that you can stay current and advance.”

'New to all of us'

Ava is just one of the 68,000 Douglas County School District students undergoing a massive transition to remote learning. The switch took place on March 23 with a teacher work day, followed by the first assignments on March 24, and will last through April 17 at least, when schools are currently expected to reopen.

Superintendent Thomas Tucker, at the helm of the state's third largest district, said the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the country's public school system into extraordinary circumstances.

“This is new to all of us,” Tucker said. “There are 13,500 public school districts in America. Watching those school districts shift from a majority brick-and-mortar environment to now an online environment, it's truly fascinating and it's really daunting.”

Tucker worked as a superintendent in 2009 during the H1N1 outbreak, which infected 60.8 million people in the U.S. during the year after it was first detected. Still, the fallout of that crisis is nowhere near the magnitude of COVID-19, Tucker said.

Plans to carry out DCSD's switch to remote learning began before spring break. Chief Technology Officer Gautam Sethi and his department conducted a survey to gauge how many families needed technological support, such as better internet connections or computers.

“From a technology perspective, you're always excited to help people with new technology. It's just been a wild ride though to try and get thousands of people to do it at the same time,” Sethi said.

The district has provided 50 hotspots to families that either did not have an internet connection or did not have a fast enough connection to support an entire family living and working from home.

The department also helped families test their connection if they weren't sure it was strong enough.

Sethi said the department plans to hand out about 25 additional hotspots the week of March 30. The efforts were slowed temporarily by the governor's stay-at-home order announced March 25, which was later amended, allowing K-12 schools to continue facilitating meals and distance learning for students.

As of March 25, the district had handed out more than 600 Chromebooks to families. Sethi anticipated providing an additional 400 to 500 the following week. Meeting demand, he explained, is an on-going process. Every day the district is receiving a few hundred requests from families.

“The remote learning is reaching into their houses and they are realizing they need more technology,” he said.

Both he and Tucker said the district's 2018 bond measure is funding technology needs for students and teachers and the district has the financial means to keep pace with demand. Tucker said that is regardless of how long schools stay closed.

“I believe we have the basic resources, the basic physical resources, in place to ensure that our students, each of our 68,000 students, receive a free and appropriate public education. Obviously, that is going to take a lot of coordination,” Tucker said.

Changing education

School board President David Ray recalled people comparing their reaction to the school closures with what someone feels during the stages of grief — denial, negotiation, anger and finally acceptance.

“I think for all of us it was just first of all, shock, in terms of realizing that the way we've been doing business, we have to do that differently now,” he said.

Ray feared what mental health effects the pandemic and school closures will have on the community.

“That's going to become something we continue to monitor,” he said.

He also worried, like many, he said, that remote education could hinder relationships between educators and students. Both Ray and Tucker pointed to relationships as a crucial element of successful teaching.

“So much of the learning relies on immediate feedback,” Ray said.

In a normal classroom setting, teachers can see and watch for students who are struggling, needing additional attention. Now, teachers must rely on auditory cues when gauging how students are faring and lean on the relationships built over the first seven months of school, Tucker said.

Sam Kurucz, a social studies teacher at Highlands Ranch High School, said the loss of face-to-face communication with students is devestating, particularly as an AP teacher helping students prepare for national testing in the coming months.

"I'm feeling more than a little apprehension on how this entire process will change the dynamic of the rest of the year," he said via email.

Kurucz sorted through mixed emotions when he learned the district would transition to remote education. He was glad and willing to take the step for the health of the community. He considers "flattening the curve," which refers to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system, as his No. 1 priority right now.

But remote education requires self-drive among students and reliance on technology to learn.

"I know some will adapt quickly, but for others the struggle will be significant," he said. "I've been upfront with my students that this is new for me as well, and that we should all be patient and understanding. This isn't easy for any of us but we will continue to weather the storm and do our best for our students."

Parents critical to remote education

The change and challenges are not isolated to the delivery of education.

“I think what's also different is there's a great deal of stress on our parents now,” Ray said. “Especially for that working parent.”

Marissa Harmon, a Lone Tree mother of two, said she's gained an increased respect for educators after a few days of homeschooling her daughters.

“The change is even for us adults hard to adjust to,” she said.

Harmon owns a hair salon and was initially concerned about balancing her work on top of homeschooling. When salons were ordered to close by the state, it came as “almost a little bit of a blessing,” she said.

Now, she could focus on helping her 7-year-old daughter Skylar and 5-year-old daughter Briana with school. Skylar is in first grade at Lone Tree Elementary and good at managing herself, Harmon said.

But Briana is in kindergarten and was diagnosed with autism in October.

Harmon loves getting the chance to educate her children but said she was shocked by the amount of material sent home for Briana's schooling, including a list of occupational therapies to continue working on.

At school, Briana has considerable support — one-on-one time with teachers, speech therapy, consistency in behavioral support, a quiet room if she needs to calm down, and a team of people to guide her development.

“I can't believe the amount of work they do,” Harmon said. “I was shocked that she works on all that at school and that they took the time to make sure that it got home, so we had consistency.”

Harmon said a group text among other parents, where they share ideas for structuring days and making school fun, provided a significant support system. Teachers have also encouraged parents against worrying about being a perfect educator and instead doing the best he or she can.

Ray said he's been encouraged by creativity that teachers are using to connect with students, including special education teachers still tasked with helping students on individualized education plans.

Tucker also commended parents for the new role they are assuming during the crisis.

“Parents are a huge part of the success of this,” Tucker said. “Some of them feel challenged, some of them feel stressed out, and we do as well.”

Uncertain road ahead

Ray believes the outlook for the crisis come mid-April will be pivotal in determining if schools can reopen this academic year. Some schools, like those in Kansas, will remain closed for the entire school year.

“The school district's desire is certainly that once it's safe, we want to get our kids back in the buildings, but we also are really aligned with Tri-County Health and their direction and also the governor's directive,” Ray said. “We're at the mercy of those two entities.”

Ray would “love to see us get back in our buildings by May.” Tucker said he's not sure what will come to pass in Colorado or if schools might stay shuttered the remainder of the school year.

“I'm hearing different things,” Tucker said. “We don't know.”

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