What is distancing learning like without a laptop? Without internet? Without parents at home? Without a home at all?
This spring, remote education brought on by the coronavirus pandemic raised difficult questions about equity and introduced unprecedented challenges for school districts across Colorado. These challenges hit Crowley County — a small, rural community in the high plains of southeast Colorado — especially hard. With fewer resources than larger, wealthier urban districts, Crowley County relied on dedicated educators to try to fill the gap.
As the district tentatively plans for an in-person return next month, staff and families at Crowley County Ward Intermediate School, one of four schools in the district, recounted the struggles and inequities of remote learning, the community’s rally-together response, and why face-to-face instruction is paramount for their students.
Crowley County is 160 miles southeast of Denver and spans 787 square miles, encompassing four tiny towns in the Arkansas Valley: Crowley, Olney Springs, Ordway (the county seat) and Sugar City. With a long history of agriculture — a sign on Main Street in Ordway proclaims President Roosevelt was greeted with “crates of cantaloupe” when he visited the town in 1910 — the county is home to ranchers and farmers as well as people who work in education, government or at one of two state correctional facilities.
The population of just over 6,000 is predominantly non-Hispanic white, with about a third of the population Hispanic or Latino. Residents describe the local culture as tight-knit and familial. “Everybody knows everybody,” said Staci Thomas, an Ordway resident since 2009.
Risk of COVID exposure nixed tech solutions
Life in this pocket of Colorado has its challenges. The median household income is $37,586, and 29.7% of Crowley County children live in poverty, more than twice the statewide average (12.1%), per 2018 data from the 2020 Kids Count in Colorado report (published by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a Colorado Trust grantee). So many kids in the school district are eligible for free lunch (52%) that all students receive free breakfast, lunch and snacks through the federal Community Eligibility Provision. Nearly 17% of county households don’t have a computer, and a quarter don’t have a broadband internet subscription — facts that made remote education particularly tough this spring.
In the early stages of distance learning, the district, like many in Colorado, looked into expanding internet access so that students who couldn’t afford at-home internet could still complete schoolwork virtually. But that proved impossible in Crowley County.
“Because we are so rural, [internet service provider] Spectrum doesn’t do service out here,” explained Deanna Brewer, principal of both Crowley County Primary School (kindergarten through third grade) and Crowley County Ward Intermediate School (fourth through sixth grade). This past spring, Spectrum offered free internet and Wi-Fi access to students and educators—as long as they lived in existing service areas.
The district considered setting up internet hotspots at the town halls in each of the four communities, but that, too, was a no-go. “Our local law enforcement thought that would just be enticing people to hang out in groups,” said Brewer — behavior that’s far from ideal during a pandemic.
Instead, students at Ward Intermediate learned one of two ways: via Google Classroom, if they had at-home internet; or with packets of printed assignments, if they did not. About 20-25 of the 104 students at Ward Intermediate learned with the packets, said Brewer, including some students who had internet but preferred a technology-free approach.
These two learning methods proved inequitable. Google Classroom allowed for more interactive teaching, said Amie Jones, a fourth grade teacher at Ward Intermediate. “If a student was doing something incorrectly and they turned it in, you could give them that feedback, they could go in and change it,” Jones explained.
That back-and-forth didn’t exist with the packets, which were distributed to students weekly alongside the free meals. Overall, Jones noticed more accountability and effort from students using Google Classroom, and the online platform made it easier for her to manage their work and identify missing assignments.
Students also struggled to navigate the nuances of Google Classroom. Only some had previous experience with the platform, said Brewer, and others were introduced to it for the first time when distance learning began.
Devices were another issue: Because Google Classroom works best on a laptop or desktop, some students who completed assignments on a tablet or smartphone battled chronic technology problems. The school loaned Chromebooks to every family who requested them, and if students seemed to be experiencing technology issues during distance learning, the school proactively gave them a Chromebook as well, said Brewer. But some families with multiple kids had to share devices, and the district, as a whole, only has 154 Chromebooks for approximately 470 K-12 students.
Having internet access didn’t even guarantee an easy experience. Staff and families at Ward Intermediate complained of fluctuating connections and slower-than-usual speeds, likely because so many in the community were trying to use the service simultaneously.
Family dynamics caused trouble, too
Individual family situations and home dynamics also affected students’ experiences with distance learning.
Crowley County School District recently performed an analysis of students’ family composition, said district superintendent Scott L. Cuckow. Results revealed that only 20% of students in the district live with both their biological mother and father.
Many kids, said Cuckow, are raised by single parents, a fact that “absolutely” impacted distance learning. Also, “some of our families are huge — they’ve got five, six, seven kids in the family,” said Cuckow. “Can you imagine the stress [of distance learning] on poor mom or dad or just a single parent?”
Fourth grade teacher Jones described one student who frequently submitted assignments late at night — sometimes at 2 a.m. — during distance learning. The student confided in her that he lived in a house with eight other people and didn’t have his own bedroom, which meant the wee hours of the morning were when the child could best focus.
Distance learning was “kind of a wreck” for Staci and Kade Thomas’s family. Both parents work full-time — Staci is the assistant director of a nursing home in Ordway, and Kade is the cowboy boss at a feedlot — which meant they typically weren’t able to help their two children with schoolwork until 6 p.m.
“It’s a bad time to be starting school,” said Staci. The kids — second grader, Taylor, and fourth grader, Trip — “were just tired and wore out from the day.”
The family would often work on assignments until 10 p.m., Staci said. “I know I’m their mom, and it’s nobody’s fault that this happened. But having to work full-time and then you’re trying to be the best teacher you can, and I’m not a teacher, so it was really frustrating and really hard and we just kind of did the best that we could.”
For Allie and Dude Buford’s family, which includes six kids ranging in age from 10 to 22, distance learning was “pretty terrible.” In particular, their youngest child, Jewel, “really, really struggled” with virtual instruction, said Allie. The rising fifth grader, Allie said, had difficulty understanding and following directions on Google Classroom.
Allie is employed by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and worked remotely the first four weeks of distance learning, which allowed her to help her kids with schoolwork. But she returned to the office at the end of April, while Dude, a supervisor with the Colorado Department of Transportation, also continued to work outside the home. That meant their 15- and 16-year-old sons, who had distance learning of their own, were left in charge.
Said Allie of her daughter Jewel: “There was nobody to sit and help her do her work like she was needing.” As a result, “we would spend most of our Saturday back trying to do school work that she wasn’t getting done. It was really frustrating to her because she had just done school all week, in her mind, even though she hadn’t completed it correctly.”
Jewel’s grades “dropped significantly” during distance learning, Allie said.
Kids with stay-at-home parents fared better
Ward Intermediate fifth grade teacher Bobbie Blanco noticed that, overall, students whose parents were able to stay home with them completed higher-quality work and turned it in on time, compared to students whose parents were not as available (though Blanco is quick to note there were certainly exceptions). “If we go back to normal school next year, we’re going to have to spend some extra time kind of catching kids up,” said Blanco, who believes at least 50% of her students didn’t absorb material during distance learning as well as they would have in a classroom.
“Most of our families did a great job of stepping up and trying to fill that gap,” said Jones. And despite the many hurdles, some students loved distance learning, like Ghett Hughes, who just finished fourth grade at Ward Intermediate. His mother, Manchie Hughes, said that after five weeks of virtual instruction, the self-driven 11-year-old is convinced he wants to be home-schooled.
“He likes the idea of being able to work from 8 a.m. to noon, get his work done and then spend the rest of the day doing his physical work — his chores, like cleaning horse pens,” Hughes said.
While distance learning demanded involvement from families, school staff went to great lengths to support them from afar.
“Basically, I was available all the time,” said Blanco, who was also helping her son Ned, a second grader at the primary school, with his distance learning. “I had students and parents contacting me at 11 o’clock at night.”
To ensure students still had access to the school’s free meals during remote education, district staff distributed food daily at set locations in each of the county’s four towns. But Tracy Eagen, the physical education teacher at both Ward Intermediate and Crowley County Primary School, worried that kids who lived in the most remote pockets of the county — some in rental houses alongside the highway; others in multi-family homes built on dirt roads; and still others in cars or campers parked on large farm properties — wouldn’t have a way to get to the food distribution locations.
So in a white van emblazoned with a red charger horse (the Crowley County High School mascot), Eagen and another staffer hand-delivered meals to these students — the “out-in-the-country kids” — nearly every weekday during distance learning and for several weeks afterward, charting a route that grew to include 25 different families and stretched up to 68 miles.
“The kids look forward to having the lunch,” said Eagen, who’s worked for the district 31 years. “It was the only thing that felt normal.”
Teachers and administrators occasionally joined Eagen on the rural route, which helped them maintain connections with students while schools were shuttered—and also illuminated some of the difficulties families face. After riding along and seeing that some students were living not in homes but in cars or campers, Cuckow, the superintendent, started talking with county commissioners to see if the community could provide aid. “We’re trying to find low-income housing for these families that just simply cannot afford to live in a house,” he said.
Brewer, who has been with the district 35 years, called every family during distance learning and asked: What can we do to help? The principal, herself a former teacher, attended the free meal drop-offs in each town to maintain contact with students, and uploaded into Google Classroom daily videos of herself reading aloud a chapter book. For students who had birthdays during distance learning, Brewer mailed rubber bracelets and notes to each of them, and has continued the outreach over the summer.
Virtual support doesn’t sub for in-person contact
Yet even tremendous amounts of virtual support couldn’t replace in-person interaction.
The rate of child abuse and neglect in Crowley County fluctuated from 8.7 to 34.2 per 1,000 children between 2014 and 2018. By comparison, statewide averages varied from 7.8 to 9.5 per 1,000 during that same period, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services.
“I think it did more damage to our students socially and emotionally by having them stay home,” said Jones, the fourth grade teacher. “Especially because for a lot of our students, school is their safe place.”
School, she said, is where students are with their friends and their teachers “who they can trust.” Before summer, winter and spring breaks, disruptive behaviors always increase.
“It’s because of that overwhelming feeling they know that for whatever period of time — whether it’s a week, or two weeks, or for the whole summer — that they’re not going to have that person they know they can trust,” Jones said. “You might have a kid blurting out more, or just yelling at somebody, or doing things they know they shouldn’t be doing because they are trying to get that attention. It’s their way of crying out for help, without crying out for help.”
This year, school was supposed to go until Friday, May 22. But because of distance learning-induced stress — plus cabin fever brought on by warmer weather and weeks cooped up inside — the administration decided to end instruction two weeks early, said Brewer. This brought a sigh of relief to stressed parents, but worried Blanco as an educator.
“I’ve always kind of struggled with summer a little bit,” said Blanco, who believes students lose significant academic progress during the months-long break, and would prefer schools adopt a year-round schedule. This year, with distance learning, “the time that me personally feels needs to be shortened, got extended,” she said.
Overall, Crowley County’s five-week experience with distance learning reinforced the value of in-person education.
“Probably about a month in, we had some parents that said, ‘I can’t fight with my kid anymore; they’re just not going to work. What options do you have?’” said Brewer. In response, the school invited struggling students to come into classrooms, no more than two at a time and wearing masks, to get one-on-one help from teachers. At least half of the students in Jones’s class opted for this in-person support — including one student who did “absolutely nothing” during distance learning, yet with face-to-face instruction was able to complete five weeks of work in just six days.
“There’s definitely just something with that accountability when we’re sitting there and they can get those questions answered right away,” said Jones.
Plans on for in-classroom instruction
As of now, Crowley County School District is planning for an in-person return to classes next month with to-be-determined health precautions in place. “What’s best for our kids is to be able to come to school,” said Cuckow.
“I just really want to take care of the whole child—[the] emotional, social and physical needs,” he added. “For a lot of our kids, that place [to receive that care] is within our school district.”
But the COVID-19 case rate is rising again in Colorado. Since testing became available this past spring, there have been 72 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Crowley County; all but nine of those cases have been among inmates at Crowley County Correctional Facility. (All inmates who tested positive recovered, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.)
There is one COVID-19 testing site in Crowley County (the Valley-Wide Health Systems clinic in Ordway), according to the Otero County Health Department, which serves Crowley County. Testing is limited to normal business hours on weekdays, and in order to get tested, people must have symptoms, or be in a high-risk category and exposed to someone with a confirmed case, according to a Valley-Wide Health Systems spokesperson. Otherwise, the closest testing site is 20 miles away in Rocky Ford, and the closest hospital is 30 miles away in La Junta.
Because of the recent uptick in cases statewide, Cuckow worries that distance learning, or a hybrid of distance and in-person learning, will be mandated. To prepare for that possibility, the district is purchasing additional Chromebooks with one-time federal and state relief funds. The goal, said Cuckow, is to equip all K-12 students with a device.
The district is also looking into expanding internet access. Right now, the most cost-effective option seems to be setting up hotspots in each of the four towns, said Cuckow. This will be the plan, he added, as long as it can be executed in accordance with public health mandates.
Hopefully, these contingency plans won’t be needed. “Our wish here, our hope here, is that we can come back,” said Brewer.
“You definitely can’t replace that in-person interaction,” said Jones. “It’s just not possible.”
Freelance writer Jenny McCoy wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on July 27, 2020.