The Douglas County School District is asking for patience from the community as the district begins the school year under the cloud of COVID-19 and irons out kinks in its various education offerings, Superintendent Thomas Tucker said.
“I continue to ask our very passionate community for continued grace and patience as we start the school year,” Tucker said in an exclusive interview with Colorado Community Media. “We’re going to need that same level of understanding, grace, patience and positive intent throughout the school year. Because we don’t know what tomorrow holds.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring, the district decided to offer multiple options for student learning for the fall. District families have the choice of either sending their students to school for "hybrid" learning — where kids attend in-person classes two days a week — or having them learn 100% online for the first semester.
> MORE: Douglas County e-learning teachers express frustration, anxiety
In the first couple weeks of school, teachers, parents and students have struggled to adjust as their class schedules and plans for the upcoming year remain in flux. Hybrid learning began Aug. 24 but online-only instruction was pushed back by a week to Aug. 31 due to staffing and technology challenges.
“This is the first time in the ... history of public education where we’ve had to face a pandemic like this,” Tucker said.
Tucker said while it would have been easier to just bring students back with online-only learning, the district wanted to bring students back to in-person learning.
“Because we know how important the affective part of education is, the relational part of education,” he said. “We believe in the power of touch, we believe in the power of relationships.”
In the next few weeks, Tucker has four main priorities, he said. First, to focus on helping build relationships between students and teachers. Second, he hopes to aid students as they begin to develop a feel for the online platform and technology. Third, to assess the social challenges students have experienced from being out of school for the past six months. Fourth, to assess the loss of academic learning students have seen due to the in-person school closure, he said.
“Each day we’re working hard to communicate better and to address technology,” he said.
Diane Smith, who was hired as the district’s head of e-learning on Aug. 3, is focusing on making sure students have their correct class lists, she said.
“Our priority really is to be sure all our kids are scheduled appropriately, that they are connecting with their teachers and each other and that they’re beginning to settle into the curriculum and develop a routine,” Smith said.
After weeks of changing student lists and classes, teachers were told they should be able to contact their students and families with instructions for the first day of school by Aug. 30, said one district teacher interviewed who asked to remain anonymous.
Smith believes almost all students were contacted by their teachers before the start of e-learning Aug. 31, she said.
“I’m sure there are a few little glitches here and there ... but the vast vast majority of our kids were in class this morning and beginning to learn,” she said.
So far, the district hasn’t seen many issues with the hybrid learning program, Tucker said. While there have been some positive cases of COVID-19 throughout the district, no school has seen a large outbreak, he said.
However, Tucker has not ruled out the possibility that the district could have to return to online-only learning, he said.
“If we don’t get control of this virus ... that could happen,” he said.
One of the biggest struggles the district has seen so far this year is staffing shortages, Tucker said. The district didn’t anticipate that more than 6,000 students would opt for the 100% e-learning option.
In March, this wasn’t a struggle because all teachers and all students were on the same program of online-only learning. When the district chose to create an option of hybrid learning or e-learning, it split the teaching staff.
“What we did not anticipate is not having an adequate number of staff members to teach those courses,” Tucker said.
Originally, the district didn’t want any teachers to have to provide instruction for both the hybrid model and the online-only option, Tucker said. Some teachers, however, have reported that this is the case for them.
“To keep that promise, we have to have staffing,” Tucker said. “We’re going to compensate them for their extra time teaching in-person as well as teaching online.”
Now, even though the district has hired enough teachers to cover their e-learning needs for the moment, they will continue hiring throughout the year, he said.
“This is not the first challenge I’ve had to address and the school district has had to deal with,” Tucker said. “This is not the first crisis in Douglas County and unfortunately, it won’t be the last ... but we have the right people in place who are compassionate and professional in dealing with crises.”
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