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MIles Love, 12, works on an online physical science problem in a Google chat room with one of his Manhattan Middle School classmates as his brother, Foster, 7, who is in first grade at Pioneer Elementary School, takes a break from his studies on March 31, 2020. This is the first week that the Boulder Valley School District has used all-online learning to teach its students. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

When a group of Kristina McCombie’s first graders joined students from another class over a Zoom call last month, chaos slowly erupted. As more students jumped onto the video gathering, their excitement escalated past the point of no return.


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McCombie muted the students — about 25 total from Stevens Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools — to regain control. From there, she unmuted one at a time so they could all take turns sharing their favorite stuffed animals and showing each other around their homes. 

At one point, one student discovered how to take back control of her volume, decoding the word “unmute” on her screen by looking for a prefix and for the “sneaky e,” which is the lesson McCombie’s class had just finished.

The teacher couldn’t be mad even as the class dissolved into chaos again. “Because she was using her reading skills,” McCombie said.

Zoom conference calls are one way McCombie’s students are continuing their education at a time in-person instruction remains canceled for all Colorado schools through at least April 17.

Similar to Jeffco Public Schools, many Colorado school districts have pivoted to remote instruction for the foreseeable future — if not the remainder of the academic year. That shift has caused a scramble among districts, with many administrators and teachers trying to figure out how to translate lessons learned best in the classroom to those that can be delivered through technology. 

What does that look like for Colorado’s younger learners — those in kindergarten, first and second grade? For the teachers responsible for those students, the focus centers on maintaining strong relationships while continuing to make progress on students’ academics.

Emily Love helps her 7-year-old son Foster, a first grader at Pioneer Elementary School in Lafayette, with his work on March 31, 2020, the second day all students in the Boulder Valley School District migrated to online learning during the coronavirus shut down. His older brother, Miles, 12, is working in a Google chat room on a physical science problem with one of his sixth grade classmates from Manhattan Middle School in Boulder. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

In Aspen School District, schools are moving to a learning environment in which teachers develop and post content that students can access on their own time and complete at their own pace — an approach that other school districts like Jeffco Public Schools are also taking.

Tom Heald, interim superintendent of Aspen School District, said the district is asking teachers to work four hours a day, with two of those hours committed to creating content and collaborating with other staff and the rest of the time devoted to face-to-face conversations with students and their families.

The district, which starts online learning on Wednesday, is directing teachers to keep their plan of action simple and avoid piling on the workload.

“We recognize that online work is going to take twice as long to complete as work in front of the teacher,” Heald said.

When it comes to younger learners, Heald said the district has laid out a plan for families that provides structure. The district wants to be explicit in conveying to families that their children are still in school.

Teachers will continue to take attendance as students log into their Google Classroom to begin engaging with their lessons. Academic expectations will still be upheld, but the district is also promoting a mindset of compassion among teachers, prodding them to be sensitive to what they see, hear and learn as they interact with students and families, Heald said.

“We want to recognize that this is a challenging time for everybody, the staff and the students together,” Heald said. “And so we’re reinforcing everywhere we can this concept of compassion.”

McCombie and her first grade teaching colleague introduced their new approach to learning as “First Grade University,” complete with a syllabus, office hours and the expectation that students would be responsible for learning on their own time. The teachers gave their students a paper packet for the first week of remote instruction and, now, in week two, have started to use technology to help teach their kids new content.

Kristina McCombie, a first grade teacher at Stevens Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools, has converted her dining room into a classroom where she can teach her students remotely. (Kristina McCombie, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The first grade classes use a digital platform called Seesaw that McCombie said functions like a social media website with a feed where students can access assignments in different subjects.

McCombie, who has split up instruction of content areas with her co-teacher, creates videos of herself teaching the lessons as though she was standing in front of her students but without their participation. Students are then instructed to watch the video of the lesson, think through questions that the teachers attach to the lesson and create a project associated with the lesson, McCombie said. 


For example, her students are currently studying birds, with the first lesson focused on where and why birds build nests. Students, McCombie said, are asked to draw a picture of a nest, write a sentence about something that they learned. They then must take a picture of their work and upload it to Seesaw.

To grab students’ attention through the screen, McCombie works from her dining room-turned-classroom to make videos that are engaging, adding props and familiar school items, including a stuffed horse named Linus that’s a regular talking piece in class and a unicorn horn she dons for certain lessons.

She tries to make the learning fun and new, just like she would in person, and connects with students one on one — in part through phone calls — to help them understand their new circumstances and show them that she’s still there.

McCombie understands the challenges her students’ families are up against as parents are basically asked to become teachers. Education is both her expertise — she has three degrees — and her passion.

“That’s hard to replace in a remote setting,” McCombie said.

But she envisions her students becoming more independent and resilient through their experience learning from home. She can already see kids stepping up.

“And I think they’ll be proud of the work that they’ve done,” she said.

“A whole new world”

The end goal is to ensure students hone the skills they need to be prepared for second grade — a goal that echoes across early grades in Jeffco Public Schools.

The district wants students to be successful by the grade level expectations outlined by the Colorado academic standards by the end of the school year, said Matt Flores, chief academic officer.

“We are holding that learning expectation in a remote environment,” Flores said.

The district is working to support its teachers, who know their students well and who are taking a variety of approaches to instruction, said Dawn Odean, executive director of early learning.

Denver Public Schools, which will launch remote learning on April 7, has teed up a variety of online resources broken out by grade level for its young learners, said Tamara Acevedo, deputy superintendent of academics. Included is a sample schedule geared toward the age level of students along with activities.

MIles Love, 12, talks to his mom about his Manhattan Middle School assignments on March 31, 2020, the second day that Boulder Valley School District used online learning to teach students during the coronavirus outbreak. His brother, Foster, 7, who is in first grade at Pioneer Elementary School, also is studying online using an activity grid provided by the district. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

The district also has made available student-friendly videos for its core content areas, including mathematics, literacy and English language development, Acevedo said.

In general, lessons for early grades are shorter with lots of engaging activities, an effort to limit screen time and an emphasis on providing children a well-rounded education with exposure to music, art and physical education, she said.

Remembering the developmental age of students is key for remote learning to be an effective mode of instruction for children in early grades, Acevedo said.

For Emily Love’s 7-year-old son Foster, a first-grader at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer in Lafayette, the first week of remote learning has incorporated a variety of virtual experiences and others outside the realm of technology. Foster’s school, part of Boulder Valley School District, is asking students to take on four or five simple activities a day, which has led the family to go on walks and call family members. He also picks out a couple books to read by himself through an online application, takes quizzes associated with the books, pursues art projects both online and with raw materials and has screen time, Love said.

The mother of two boys helps her younger son with online learning by sitting him down to get started and monitoring him so that he doesn’t get distracted. But she’s not holding high expectations or overdoing it as her family settles into their new reality.

“I think it’s a whole new world for these young kids to get used to,” Love said.

Keeping the connection despite the screen

As Colorado school districts try to reclaim the academic momentum that stalled when Colorado’s coronavirus outbreak prompted school closures this year, some of them are equally as concerned about ensuring their students continue to feel connected to their teachers and peers — with technology as the vehicle for that connection.

Technology is native to the generation of students in school today, said Marlena Gross-Taylor, chief academic officer of Douglas County School District.

“Our kids will be OK,” she said.

But they also need human connection — which is a top priority the district is reinforcing to its teachers in early grades.

“Learning is different for now for sure for the whole country,” she said, “but it’s still fun and it’s important that our kids still feel connected to their school community.”

MIles Love, 12, works on an online physical science problem in a Google chat room with one of his Manhattan Middle School classmates as his brother, Foster, 7, who is in first grade at Pioneer Elementary School, takes a break from his studies on March 31, 2020. This is the first week that the Boulder Valley School District has used all-online learning to teach its students. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Many of the district’s teachers hold office hours for their students, when they can provide one-on-one support, Gross-Taylor said.

As DPS moves forward with online instruction, the district will focus on engagement and participation in the first couple of weeks to encourage students to continue developing their relationship with their teacher and help them adjust to their routine and understand what to expect.

With remote learning, “the connection and the relationship is important to keep going,” Acevedo said.

For teachers like McCombie, it’s personal interactions with students that are hard to live without.

Her class is a very tightknit one, she said.

“I really, really miss seeing them, hugging them, just kind of being that ever-present force for them.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...