As Douglas County e-learning teachers geared up for their first week of classes, starting Aug. 31 after a week-long delay, some expressed frustration and anxiety over the coming weeks, saying their student rosters continued to change, technology presented challenges and expectations from administrators remained unclear.
In the preceding two weeks, the Douglas County district had pivoted to a new model for high school e-learners, and in middle and elementary schools, some teachers still didn’t have final rosters for their students or direction on how to grade their assessments as of Friday, Aug. 28, according to district teachers.
Now, some teachers interviewed by Colorado Community Media are describing themselves and their colleagues as -- in the words of one -- “at a breaking point.”
> MORE: Interview: Douglas County schools superintendent asks for patience
“I’ve never seen my colleagues under the amount of stress they’re under right now,” one district high school teacher for e-learning said. “There has been more crying in August than probably in the last 10 years by the teachers and staff.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Douglas County families have been given the option to either send their students to school for a hybrid learning program or to exclusively learn through online platforms for the first semester.
Of the district’s 68,000 students, about 6,300 have elected to do online-only classes. That’s not what the district expected, Superintendent Thomas Tucker said.
“We were surprised that over 6,000 students and their parents chose e-learning,” Tucker said in an interview. “The same proportion of staff didn’t follow students to the e-learning cohort.”
Staffing shortages have made the start to e-learning rocky, but Tucker says enough teachers have now been brought on board and issues should begin to be worked out.
When the back-to-school plan was first put in place, about 60 district teachers asked to be assigned to e-learning, said Diane Smith, the district’s director of e-learning. Now, there are 165 e-learning teachers. Some of those additional 100 teachers were new hires and others were reassignments from other schools, Smith said.
A few days before both e-learning and hybrid learning were set to begin Aug. 24, the district announced it would delay all levels of e-learning by a week due to staffing and technical difficulties, according to a public statement from David Ray, the school board president.
“Due to many staff members not having timely access to our digital content, we have made the difficult decision to postpone the first day of school for our elementary and middle school eLearners,” said the statement, posted to Facebook.
In a letter to parents, the district cited difficulties in setting up an e-learning platform as their reason for delaying high school instruction.
Tucker and some district teachers, however, have confirmed a total shift in the e-learning plan for high schoolers announced Aug. 21. Instead of having one district-wide platform for e-learning instruction — which is how it will be done for middle and elementary students — the leadership for online-only high school instruction was transitioned back to each individual high school. Now, each school’s principal will manage e-learning.
This change was in part due to the complex scheduling associated with high school-age students, one teacher explained. With electives, AP courses and other advanced-direction classes, a district-wide approach just wasn’t possible.
“High school is too specialized,” the teacher said. “They just don’t have enough content specialists to open up a whole new (online) school.”
This teacher, a high school level e-learning instructor, asked to remain anonymous because of the district’s policy on media interviews, as did others who spoke with a reporter for this story. Teachers are asked not to speak with members of the media without going through the district’s head office first.
In response to questions about this policy, Tucker said any teacher can speak to the media after the request has been processed through the district's communications department, even if they have negative comments about the district.
“That’s what they should have done from the start,” the high school e-learning instructor said about the shift in high school e-learning. “Now it’s been a scramble and each high school is dealing with this differently.”
That teacher and others feel they haven’t been properly trained in the digital platforms being used for online instruction, she said.
“It’s a type of technology we don’t have any training for and only a week to figure it out,” she said.
Outside of the technical challenges, teachers have described confusion over the district’s expectations.
“The biggest problem is teachers and students don’t know what they’re doing Monday (Aug. 31),” said a district middle school teacher, who also asked to remain anonymous.
“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions that we would like answered before the first day of school,” she said. “Such as grades. We haven’t been given any direction on how much weight should be given (to assessments) ... that’s just one example.”
Another area where the teacher feels she is missing is in how to enforce discipline in an online classroom.
“There hasn’t been anything like that communicated to e-learning teachers for discipline,” she said. “I don’t feel I have that support and I don’t know who I would turn to if I have to write up a student ... if each teacher has different policies, it can cause confusion for students who have six teachers per week.”
In response to questions about a lack of direction for teachers, Tucker said the district has taken steps to keep instructors informed.
“We’ve done a good job of communicating,” he said. “Can we do better? Absolutely.”
The middle school e-learning teacher has seen her class schedule change multiple times in the past few weeks. At some points, she was being asked to teach classes outside of her area of expertise, training and credentials, she said.
When her final class schedule was set, less than a week before classes were set to begin following the delay, her roster of students was still up in the air, she said.
Without knowing who is in her classes, she said she worries about being adequately prepared to help students with learning disabilities, English language challenges and advanced learning plans.
“I worry that those who are behind will fall further behind,” the middle school e-learning teacher said. “It’s all on me to figure it out, with my caseload of (over 150 students) ... how can I make sure they’re each successful?”
Some teachers also expressed concern over their relationship with parents.
“If I was a parent and I’m getting these emails ... I would feel like they were further along in the planning process than it actually is,” the middle school teacher said. “I really think when the administration says teachers are ready when they’re not, it starts a lack of trust ... if teachers are coming in unprepared, the blame would be placed on them.”
The high school teacher is also afraid of how she and her colleagues will come across to their students’ parents.
“We take such pride in what we do ... we have a certain way of teaching and interacting with students that’s our own personal take on it and none of us want to look incompetent or incapable or uncaring,” she said.
Tucker and Smith ask for patience as they continue to work through the issues coming up with e-learning.
“I want to communicate very clearly to our teachers that in order for us to be successful, for our students to be successful, we need our teachers, we need to ensure they have a level of comfort,” he said. “We’re all in this together, I promise them this will work out.”
Smith said teachers will continue to be trained in technology as the school year goes on and that all the issues with e-learning will soon be ironed out.
“I’ve been in education over 40 years and this has been the most challenging I’ve ever had,” she said. “And I know it’s been the same for them.”
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