It’s the million-dollar question — or likely one worth much more than that — for districts across Colorado and the country: How should school play out this fall at a time the coronavirus may very well still pose a major threat to communities?
Some of Colorado’s 178 school districts have nailed down preliminary back-to-school plans, with districts like Denver Public Schools intending to return to school buildings full time and at full capacity. Other districts are still considering how best to move forward, laying out different options that include in-person learning, remote learning or variations of a blended model.
While many teachers don’t want to go another school day or week without being in the same classroom as their students, they also recognize that resuming in-person learning carries significant risks and will require strict protocols around how students interact and how to respond to a coronavirus case or outbreak. But there are also costs to continuing distance learning.
At the very least, teachers are calling for schools, districts and decision-makers to listen to their thoughts and make sure they’re part of the equation when it comes to figuring out how to safely educate students. Last week, the Colorado Education Association released a public statement urging districts to involve teachers, parents and students in the conversation on how to plan for in-person classes with health top of mind.
The Colorado Sun interviewed four educators across Colorado to learn what they view as the best option for fall instruction and what they need from their schools and districts to feel safe at work. The teachers are adamant that they want what’s best for students — which centers on in-person instruction — but with the health and safety of their communities a competing priority, they remain cautious.
Plans upon plans
Sarah Seaman, like many teachers, longs to be with her students again. At DSST: Conservatory Green High School in Denver, where she teaches calculus and algebra 2 and serves as chair of the math department, she has many students of color and many who live in poverty.
Seaman, who has been teaching for eight years, understands how hard it was for her students to navigate online learning. But her hopes of returning to the classroom don’t outweigh the concerns she has around the health and safety of school communities.
“The caveat to that is that we have to do so in a way that respects the safety of the teachers, the staff and the students as well,” Seaman said.
Seaman, 29, will likely end up back in her classroom at her charter school this fall as DPS recently announced plans to send teachers and students back to school at full capacity, but with an online option for families not comfortable with that.
Seaman favored more of a hybrid model for her district to allow for smaller groups of students who could receive more differentiated help. She added that with the likelihood of schools having to close again because of an outbreak, a hybrid approach would mean a smoother transition.
It would be easier for teachers and families to live in an “in between land,” she said, so that they could slide in one direction depending on circumstances.
“I don’t think that it’s 100% safe for teachers and staff and students to all return 100% in person and live in this reality that everything is going to be fine as long as we push through,” Seaman said, pegging DPS as “slightly naive.”
Flexibility and contingency plans are going to be essential along with considering what will be best for different grade levels rather than creating a blanket plan, she said.
For Seaman to feel safe in the classroom, “we need to have plans on top of plans on top of plans,” Seaman said. That means defining protocols for if someone enters a school building with a fever, setting up a tracking system for the virus within school communities, implementing realistic prevention measures and establishing how many cases a school can experience and still remain open.
She said she’s healthy, but she worries about the possibility of helping spread the virus.
“But I just would hate to make the assumption and be a carrier to someone who does not have that same privilege that I do,” Seaman said.
She also recognizes that school planning is anything but one-size-fits-all across districts.
“We can’t go in under the assumption that all communities are the same,” Seaman said. “What is best for my school that serves multiple neighborhoods in urban Denver might be, and probably should be, different than what is best for a rural community.”
“Torn” about the return to school
How do you keep students and teachers living through a pandemic healthy in a school building with windows that don’t open and a ventilation system that circulates air throughout confined spaces?
Megan Hartmann can’t answer that question for Glenwood Springs High School, where she teaches math.
Her school district, Roaring Fork School District, hasn’t yet determined how classes will be conducted in the new school year but has narrowed its options to three, Hartmann said, including full in-person learning, a hybrid of in-person and online instruction and online-only classes.
Hartmann, 35, worries for the school year and about what will happen if students and teachers head back to school.
“But I am also in some ways equally worried for the education and mental health of our students if we don’t,” she said.
Hartmann’s top choice would fully open schools back up to students, as that would benefit kids the most. But she’s not convinced that’s possible in a pandemic.
A hybrid model would be the district’s next best option, she said, since students learn better in person with access to their teachers.
But Hartmann said she doesn’t know how her district could implement such a blended approach without doubling the work for teachers.
“Even with a reduced capacity in school, there will still be a lot of work that we have to do to try and ensure the health of our staff, of our students and our custodians,” she said.
To feel safe at school in the fall, Hartmann hopes her district spells out some very clear guidelines with very clear consequences attached, including that if a student — especially one in high school — doesn’t have a mask on then they’re not allowed in the school. She also said it will be important to develop systems that ensure social distancing, such as keeping students and teachers in groups together. In a traditional school calendar, teachers interact with 100 to 200 students every day or two, depending on how schedules are structured. The potential for spreading germs is “astronomical,” Hartmann said.
The educator, whose husband has asthma, is feeling “torn” about teaching in the fall.
“I want more than anything to be back in my classroom teaching how I have always taught, but I don’t see that as a reality and so I’m nervous and not really looking forward to it,” she said.
Her main message to her district’s decision-makers: consider teachers’ point of view.
“I think ensuring that teachers have voice and that there’s two-way communication as we move into the school year is crucial,” Hartmann said.
Coping with high poverty, high trauma in a pandemic
Charles “Cody” Childers teaches in one of Colorado’s poorest school districts, which he said faces significant barriers during a traditional school year.
Now, with a pandemic that’s leaving school districts like Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 even more cash-strapped than usual, he has a stack of concerns for the year ahead.
“In the best of times, we’re having difficulties meeting the demands of our students, let alone when we have a budget shortfall due to an economic crisis caused by (COVID-19),” said Childers, 27.
The southwest Colorado district has defined a preliminary plan for fall instruction, leaning toward in-person learning, but has three other options it’s also considering — including remote learning and two scenarios of blended learning that would incorporate both in-person and online components.
Childers, who was teaching language arts and computer science at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School but is pivoting to teaching language arts at Montezuma-Cortez High School, supports his superintendent in reopening classroom doors.
He acknowledges the many learning gaps in his district and the struggles it faces in rural Colorado, where access to technology doesn’t always come easily.
But as much as Childers wants to see his students and as much concern as he has for their social-emotional health, he is equally as concerned for the well-being of his broader community, which includes a big retirement population, an older group of educators and nearby Native American tribes.
Cortez is a few minutes drive from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation and about 40 minutes north of Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, which has reported a large number of cases.
“If my kids are taking diseases back to their families that are already deeply affected by this, that’s not good for our students,” he said. “It’s not good for our community. It adds more trauma.”
Childers believes face-to-face instruction will serve students best, but he’s open to a blended education model, if it is safer, or remote instruction, which he learned a lot from in the spring that he hopes would help make him a better online teacher in the fall.
While he’s not particularly concerned about his own health, he worries about his students, his older colleagues, those with health complications and Indigenous populations.
Another stressor that weighs on him: trying to meet his kids where they’re at during a hard time and in “a high-trauma community who experiences a lot of suffering on a good day.”
“It’s going to be hard to help my students knowing that we’re being asked to do with even less in our schools,” Childers said. “I have to overcome so much with my kids and that’s my concern, is that my kids have a hard life. We live in a hard area where grit is the name of the game.”
He urges his district leaders to strategically think through reopening, rather than rushing, and that means consulting teachers about how best to do it safely.
“If you don’t include teachers, you’re opening yourself up to potential oversights,” Childers said. “And those oversights could have potentially fatal implications.”
Excitement and anxiety in one
This past spring was one of the hardest periods of Kristine Hartman’s 22-year teaching career as her school, along with just about every other in the state, pivoted to remote learning.
“I felt that I couldn’t be there for my students like I’d like to be, and I was worried about them just being away from school,” Hartman said. “It was a huge learning curve doing everything remotely.”
Hartman, who teaches a multi-age class of first and second graders at Cañon Exploratory School in Cañon City, is excited about teaching in the fall and seeing her students in person again. But that enthusiasm is tempered by some anxiety — she’s more nervous for this coming school year than she has been during other back-to-school seasons.
Hartman attributes some of those jitters to COVID-19 and some to having been out of the classroom since March 12. She wonders how kids might feel about returning to the classroom when it will look so different from what they know.
Her students’ social-emotional well-being is her top concern.
“My biggest fears are that my students will feel anxious about being there or scared to be there because of the worry behind getting sick — those kinds of feelings,” Hartman said.
Hartman’s district, Cañon City School District, has chosen a hybrid model in which different groups of students will go into the classroom on Mondays and Wednesdays and others will experience in-person learning on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Smaller class sizes will enable social distancing, she said, and the district will also enforce handwashing.
Ideally, Hartman wants to have all her students in her classroom every day, but she knows that would be risky during the pandemic.
“I would love to say that we can have our full classroom and be back to learning face-to-face and kind of having some normalcy,” she said. “But understanding the significance of (COVID-19) and understanding the significance of putting all of those people back in one place, my hope is that we can be in the classroom at least some with kids.”
While Hartman, 46, has concerns about so much interaction inside schools, she is confident her district is adequately preparing for the return of students and teachers with health and safety measures like social distancing, handwashing and mask wearing. She added that with Cañon City being a smaller community, it hasn’t seen as many coronavirus cases as metropolitan areas have, and so she believes it is safer for her district to resume in-person learning.
Still, Hartman, who considers herself relatively healthy, senses that fear of the pandemic will linger until it’s more under control everywhere.
“No matter how much cleaning or social distancing or preparing they do, it’s still a pandemic and it’s still here,” she said.
Hartman hopes her school and her district will step up to educate students and families on safety measures that will guard against the spread of the virus so that everybody is on the same page. It must be done appropriately, she said, so that it’s not a “scare tactic, but just an understanding of keeping people safe.”