March 12, Jeffco Public Schools announced it would be closing all school buildings the following week, leaving district and school employees a matter of days to ensure that, by March 17, tens of thousands of students were equipped with take-home devices, apps and internet access.
“At first, it seemed very overwhelming moving everything online,” said Dale Munholland, social studies teacher at Arvada's Pomona High School. “I had to very quickly learn to make videos and post them. There's a huge learning curve for everyone.”
The decision to close school buildings was driven by safety concerns as COVID-19 has continued to spread throughout the state. On March 13, Gov. Jared Polis had encouraged the cancellation of large public gatherings, prompting Jeffco's decision to engage in online learning March 16 through 20.
After a follow-up government announcement ordering schools to suspend in-person learning until at least April 17, Jeffco has extended the online system through that time, with a hiatus for Jeffco's previously scheduled Spring Break March 23-27. Mondays will also be no-student days to allow teachers time to plan, according to a March 19 district announcement.
Each school has been given some flexibility on its remote learning approach to best meet students' needs. At Wheat Ridge's Peak Expeditionary School at Pennington, for instance, while remote learning does rely on some online tools, younger students have also been equipped with grocery bags full of dozens of worksheets, which teachers sent home with parents, mom Sarah Goudie said.
Those worksheets are a large part of the day for Goudie's first-grader, Cora. In a typical day, Cora may complete four literacy worksheets and a math worksheet, with Sarah photographing the finished papers to message to Cora's teacher. Next, she'll complete a specials class, like art, by following a video tutorial on YouTube. To finish the day, she writes an answer to the class's `Question of the Day' and reads it out loud, with Sarah also messaging this recording to Cora's teacher.
In total, Goudie estimated that the 6-year-old has been spending about an hour-and-a-half to two hours on school each day.
Both Goudie's daughters — Cora and 4-year-old Hannah, a preschooler at Peak Expeditionary — also see a speech therapist through the school and have been able to continue those meetings remotely.
“The schools had a really big task that was thrust upon them, and they're really trying and staying super accessible,” Goudie said.
While Goudie and fellow parents agree that the district's quick response has been admirable, for students, the adjustment has taken some getting used to.
“Our first official day ended up in tears with me and my 6-year-old, twice. I said I'll make it as much like school as I possibly can, but within an hour it hit her that this is not going to be like school,” Goudie said. “It's just going to be a tough transition, but I think it can work.”
She added that, to help students with social and instructional challenges, the school is considering adding video chat through an online platform like Zoom, allowing teachers a way to communicate with the students face-to-face.
Zoom is already being used by other schools, such as Vanderhoof Elementary in Arvada, where first-grader Ville Hulme logs on every day at 9 a.m. for a class-wide video chat.
What follows throughout the day is a series of online activities: “They've been using Google Classroom to post all assignments and instructions, Prodigy (a learning platform) for math games, a wide variety of online reading resources,” just to name a few, said Ville's mother, Castine.
“The teachers have done an excellent job with the lessons, but at this young age, it requires a lot of parent involvement,” she said.
However, despite the pressure this adds on the family — both Castine and her husband work full-time — “I'm really enjoying seeing him get involved with his lessons and work,” she said of her son.
Elsewhere in Jeffco, 10-year-old Evan Winner has found himself spending about two hours on schoolwork each day since the transition to remote learning, he said.
The fourth-grader, who attends Mitchell Elementary School in Golden, receives all of his daily assignments from his teacher each morning and is expected to submit them online, in any order, by 3 p.m., he said.
Like Hulme, the day for Winner's class begins with a class video chat so students have a chance to socialize, whether that means chatting about staying at home or showing their pets to one another, Winner said.
He added that when he's had trouble understanding instructions or content, he and his mother have been able to access a group chat in which students can ask questions. His teacher has also been available to message one-on-one.
“It's really creative that they found a way to do this,” Winner said. While he doesn't enjoy “having to stay inside all day,” he said, “I'm excited because I get to not wake up at seven, and I can spend more time with my family.”
For sophomore Morgan Fritzler, who attends Lakewood High School, one of the most difficult parts of the change has been losing the social aspect of school, she said. However, she and her friends have worked to stay connected, including by launching a group FaceTime every day at lunch.
“Classes like AP US History are definitely harder online, because it's easier with discussions,” she said. “Having to do it alone, you don't have as much faith in yourself. It's an adjustment to the way I've been learning for so long.”
That said, a silver lining is the independence in learning, as she can send in work throughout the day and can take a break if she finishes early, she said. “I like to be able to work at my own pace.”
Many of Fritzler's teachers have posted interactive slideshows or videos to teach content to students. Other classes, like her choir class, have gone online by asking students to send in recordings of themselves singing — an assignment that was part of the curriculum even before school was online-only, Fritzler said.
At Pomona, Munholland said he has noticed that the school's familiarity with online elements has helped make the transition smoother. For instance, freshmen and sophomores at Pomona already have school- or district-issued devices, and many of their assignments have been submitted online throughout the year, he said.
Meanwhile, a challenge has been narrowing the scope of the courses he teaches, he said. At Pomona, students will only have each class twice a week for about 45 minutes, and teachers like Munholland have had to decide how to condense the remainder of this year's material.
“A lot will be cut out and we'll just really focus on the major points and big ideas,” he said.
“For high school kids, I don't feel like what they miss would be too damaging,” he said. “Going forward, on the short-term, I think it is sustainable. For everybody, it's just (about) being patient and understanding.”
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