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Facing “seismic shift” this year, Colorado educators pioneer through permanent changes to schooling

Colorado schools are trying to embrace technology’s leading role during the pandemic while also trying to create a level playing field

Esperanza Raimirez works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students have participated in remote learning. (AP Photo, David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Where there were once cracks in Colorado’s education system, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes now sees chasms, laying bare persistent inequities across schools and districts that have only worsened with the pandemic.

“The really hard lesson is just how much we’ve been patching things together for so long,” Anthes told a group of parents, teachers, school and district leaders, education advocates and policymakers gathered Friday to discuss how Colorado schools are coping during the coronavirus. “And you guys have been doing an amazing job patching things together, but I think this is really ripping those patches off and making us think much deeper about equity.”

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The conversation, convened by the Colorado Education Initiative and the Colorado Children’s Campaign, drew school and district leaders from urban, suburban and metro pockets to explain the struggles they face during the pandemic, as well as the successes they’ve had and the kinds of innovation they see possible. 

One key takeaway across districts: The shape of school before the pandemic is now history.

“We are navigating this seismic shift in education,” said Karen Quanbeck, superintendent of Clear Creek School District RE-1 in Idaho Springs. “And my gut is, we’re not going back to pre-pandemic learning, and there’s pros and cons to that.”

“Technology has shoved its way into instruction,” Quanbeck added, “and that’s exciting, but it is so challenging.”

The pandemic has illuminated long-standing inequities

Anthes rattled off a list of areas where cracks in education have paved the way for inequities, including in dilapidated school buildings and ventilation systems, and in workforce challenges with an inadequate number of staff members and substitutes to manage classrooms during quarantines.

Those inequities penalize students who have historically been underserved by public schools, said Michael Thomas, superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11.

“The elephant in the room, from my vantage point, is not every kid matters,” Thomas said. “And I think we have significant data to show that if every kid mattered we wouldn’t see the predictable inequities that we can predict by ZIP code, by race, by language acquisition, et cetera.” 

COVID-19 has exposed the serious funding gap in K-12 across the country at a time schools need significant resources to respond to the individual needs of every single student who shows up in their classrooms, Thomas said.

Thomas said he wants to see the state take action in prioritizing education rather than simply touting education as a top concern. “If you’re deeming K-12 as a critical service, but you don’t resource it as such, I think we’re going to be set up for a second wave of failure for our students and our staff.”

Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton set up its own learning pods inside schools this fall to try to keep many of its students from being left behind. About 4,000 students were served, mostly kids whose parents’ work keeps them from participating in online and hybrid education, students with disabilities, those learning English and those living in poverty, Superintendent Chris Gdowski said.

Parents and students pick up backpacks filled with school supplies at the central administration offices of Adams 12 school district in Thornton on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The pods, staffed by a variety of employees, including bus drivers, before- and after-school child care workers and paraprofessionals, have shown how adaptable and responsive a school system can be and strengthening working relationships across different departments, Gdowski said. 

Other students across Colorado run the risk of losing academic ground because they don’t have access to a reliable internet connection. This is especially true in rural communities.

In West Grand School District 1-JT, in Kremmling, Superintendent Darrin Peppard said internet connectivity continues to pose problems. Among them, wireless hot spots — devices that allow families to get an internet connection in communities without broadband — aren’t always reliable. In some rural areas, even basic cell service is unavailable.

“Hot spots are great, but if you don’t have cell service, they’re just another item to set on the desk,” Peppard said.

MORE: Northwest Colorado gets a gigabit broadband boost from U.S. Department of Agriculture

In La Veta School District RE-2, in southern Colorado, Superintendent and Principal Bree Jones said most kids have some kind of internet access but it’s not adequate — and “no current way to overcome that.” Students might rely on hot spots that run out of power after about a week or that are too slow or they’re using radio or satellite internet that is too slow for streaming, she said, noting that she can’t take part in a Zoom meeting from her home.

The district has some of the only fiber optic lines in its community, so it has brought students into school during the pandemic — with permission from the state — so they can complete their schoolwork.

Rural districts are figuring out creative ways to work around the digital divide, but the solution can’t center on ordering more hot spots, Jones said.

Anthes has repeatedly said broadband is a necessity for schooling. 

“Broadband and internet connectivity is (an) essential school supply, but yet we don’t have that across our state,” Anthes said. “And I’ve heard many of you lament you’ve been promised this for 15-20 years, and you haven’t seen it come to fruition, and I agree with you. And so, I really hope that this can double, triple down our emphasis on infrastructure.”

A fresh approach to attracting teachers and overcoming academic losses

District leaders echoed one another in their concerns for the future of Colorado’s educator workforce as many struggle to keep schools up and running while having to quarantine teachers and students.

Jones stressed the need for leaders to be thoughtful about the message they’re sending to aspiring teachers. If they’re not careful, they could worsen the recruitment and retention crisis that was going on before COVID hit.

“Historically when we’ve been in situations like this, we have intentionally or unintentionally sent a message to young people that we don’t need or want them in the profession, that we won’t have jobs for them,” Jones said. “And I think we have to be so careful and so intentional about what our message is right now.”

The superintendent acknowledges all the budget uncertainty districts face but said that can’t stand in the way of trying to attract quality teachers to schools.

“When we think about the mess and the complexity, we need excellent people coming into education to meet that challenge,” she said, “and we need to make sure that as an educational community that’s the message that we’re sending.”

More than one superintendent highlighted the need to tend to the mental health of teachers already in the field. As much as education leaders worry about the social-emotional well-being of their students, they are equally concerned about how well their teachers are coping with the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Justin Castilla works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo, David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Education leaders also acknowledged how much support their students will need in overcoming the academic losses they’ve suffered during the pandemic. Gdowski, of Adams 12 Five Star Schools, posed the idea of making summer school a more mainstream part of the academic year — not only for those students who are struggling.

“So often in the past, summer school has been labeled as something that is almost a punishment and it’s remedial in nature and if you screwed up, and you haven’t done right in getting your courses completed during the school year, your reward/punishment is to go to summer school,” Gdowski said. “And moving forward, we have so many kids who have done all the right work, have participated and given their best and yet they’re still very far behind.”

Kids are especially behind in math, he said. He believes that extended learning in the summer for kids across academic levels — with time for both studying and fun together — are increasingly important. But districts don’t currently have the resources for that kind of programming, Gdowski said.

Another important component to helping kids succeed in the future: keeping a range of learning modes in place to meet the different needs of different students.

Anthes sees promise in districts continuing to build on the different models of instruction — such as remote, hybrid and pods — that they’ve developed during the pandemic.

“I think one of the innovations coming out of this is, how can we consider those models moving forward,” she said, “even when we’re not in a pandemic?”

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