Colorado school districts trying to leap to online learning this spring faced an endless list of competing priorities, from training teachers and staff on digital platforms to ensuring students had the technology and internet connections needed for coursework.
But one priority appears to have fallen toward the bottom of the list for many of them as they grappled with COVID-19: consistent online communication with families.
Many districts failed to use their websites to communicate about critical components of students’ education during online learning this spring, including policies surrounding distance learning, how attendance and grades were being measured, and the minimum hours of weekly schooling students would experience, according to a report released Wednesday by A+ Colorado.
The organization hopes the findings spur more districts to specifically spell out the ways in which they’re supporting students, particularly those that concern students with disabilities and students learning English.
“We know that the websites are not necessarily reflective of what districts were doing and how they were communicating with families, but we do think that they’re indicative of something,” said Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado.
“And our hope is that districts will beef up whatever communication they’re already doing and also make sure that their websites are very clear about these things,” Schoales said.
A+ Colorado evaluated 56 of Colorado’s 178 school districts that in total educated 821,329 students this spring. Those districts had the highest percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — and the highest number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch during the last school year.
That approach allowed researchers to study a cross section of urban, rural and suburban districts, said Stephen Fusco, vice president of policy and research at A+ Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit focused on improving public education and increasing student achievement statewide.
Toward the end of May, the organization looked at the websites of those districts — about 80% of which they found displayed some information about online learning policies and procedures. But many of the districts included in the report failed to get into any specifics.
While 62% of the districts neglected to explain how they were monitoring attendance, about 70% of the districts did not devote any part of their websites to disclosing the “minimum hours of weekly instruction families could expect for their children,” the researchers found. Nearly half of the districts did not offer information related to grading procedures, and most districts did not highlight policies and procedures surrounding instructional services for students. Additionally, more than two-thirds of the district websites did not highlight how districts were supporting the educational and social-emotional needs of students with disabilities and students learning English.
That concerns both Fusco and Schoales.
“History tells me if we don’t know what’s going on, that it’s probably not great,” Schoales said.
The report demonstrates that it’s not clear how schools and districts are working to meet the needs of families and students, particularly those who have a disability or who are learning English.
Schoales is also eager to get a better understanding of how districts are providing social-emotional support to their students and families as students’ well-being ranks high among districts’ priorities, as evidenced by a needs assessment conducted by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative in the spring. It would be nice to know what that support looks like as schools prepare to welcome kids back in the fall in person or remotely, Schoales said.
A+ Colorado recommends districts increase their mental health supports and ensure families have direct access to mental health providers.
Is it fair to look only at websites?
There are bright spots in the report. Among them, Thompson School District R2-J in Loveland, planned to facilitate a free, four-week online English language development program for students in grades 2-12 in June. Additionally, Saint Vrain Valley RE-J1, centered in Longmont, ran a community resource center, complete with a drive-through and bilingual staff members. The center gave students the opportunity to check out iPads and access to Wi-Fi services to download learning materials while also providing technology support to teachers and staff.
In Colorado Springs D-11, administrators and educators committed to partnering with families, collecting their feedback throughout the course of remote learning.
A+ Colorado aims to improve transparency among districts heading into the next academic year.
“Our goal was to acknowledge where we were and what can we do to improve data transparency for families and stakeholders in the community?” Fusco said.
A+ Colorado acknowledges that districts’ websites don’t fully reflect the actions they’re taking, he said. The report doesn’t question the ways in which districts served their students and families throughout remote learning, but rather raises the issue of information transparency.
Without information readily accessible on a district’s website — a source that families rely on to stay informed — families are forced into a state of ambiguity, wondering what the information and developments they hear in public mean for their child, Fusco said.
“At a time that information is moving so fast, families need to have the most up-to-date information available at the same speed on district websites,” he said.
Even as districts use other avenues of communication, such as email and texting, a district’s website remains “a central repository,” Fusco said, and so it’s critical that it houses timely information about plans and changes for school in the fall.
Fusco also hopes districts are encouraged by the report to provide more robust information for students with special needs and those learning English. Programming for those students is often unique and families are used to detailed information, and so districts must ensure that they maintain a level of detail so that families know what’s happening for their students in remote learning environments.
Schoales noted that even before the pandemic, transparency regarding how districts are supporting their students was an issue. Now, with remote learning in place, “the websites become so much more important,” he said. He understands that districts may have struggled to keep their websites updated as they were transitioning to online learning, but he was surprised that there weren’t more districts with more informative websites later on in May.
He urges Colorado districts to be as clear as they can about their plans, what they know and what they’re still figuring out and invite families to offer input. That approach is far better than remaining silent while trying to solidify a solution to an issue they face, Schoales said.
Without that transparency, families suffer.
“It adds to the confusion and chaos that’s occurring within education right now,” Fusco said. “Families have high anxieties, students have high anxieties because they’re receiving information at such a fast pace and they’re not able to discern what is fact from what is speculation.”