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Is remote learning here to stay? Many, but not all, Colorado schools will offer online classes this fall.

More than 700 Jeffco Public Schools students are enrolled in the district’s new online program for next year, while some rural schools are prioritizing in-person learning.

Madi Smith, 15, works on her stepdad's laptop at her Pueblo West home on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Madi, who just wrapped up her freshman year at Cañon City High School, will continue taking classes through Cañon City School District next year as a fully online student. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)
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When Madi Smith starts her sophomore year at Cañon City High School in the fall, her school days will resemble many of those during her freshman year, with classes beginning with the power button of a Chromebook rather than the ding of a bell.

Madi, 15, clocked many of her school hours during the pandemic-riddled year in her dad’s Cañon City home and her mom’s house in Pueblo West, sometimes because she was in hybrid mode, other times because she was forced to quarantine. 

Come August, she’ll continue learning online through Cañon City High School — but by then she’ll regularly be at her dad’s new house in Colorado Springs, about 40 miles away from her classmates. 

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Thanks to online programs and open enrollment policies, remote learning won’t entirely disappear from Colorado schools next year or even once cohorting and social distancing have become practices of the past. District leaders, educators and state officials anticipate that many schools will continue to offer a remote learning option to students, some of whom have thrived in an online school environment.

Educators point to a variety of reasons to keep remote options alive long past the pandemic. Some students are simply more successful learning through digital platforms. Others, shouldering family responsibilities to care for siblings or working a job, benefit from the flexibility that online schooling offers. And some have family members with health conditions that put them at a greater risk for diseases like COVID-19, so they feel safer at home.

As much as remote learning developed a bad rap across the country amid the pandemic, it proved to be the best option for kids like Madi, who said she likes to learn at her own pace but also acknowledged how critical personal motivation is in helping a student through online classes.

Her own motivation stems from trying to keep her parents from getting on her about school — something that she said “annoys the crap out of me” — and also her personal drive to get good grades.

“I don’t like having low grades because it just panics me, especially when I’m in sports,” Madi said, noting she may try out for volleyball next year and will rely on her parents and older sister to shuttle her to practices and games.

“Kids can really start learning any time anywhere” 

But how effectively remote learning worked on a larger scale is a more complicated question to answer. 

In one sense, it kept kids chugging along with their academics.

“The ability for systems to provide remote learning during the pandemic was essential to ensuring continuity of learning for kids,” said Bill Kottenstette, executive director of Schools of Choice under the Colorado Department of Education. “If that wasn’t on the table, then we would see significant learning impacts this year.”

The state won’t have a good idea of where students are academically until the fall, when it can analyze the results of Colorado Measures of Academic Success exams from this spring.

However, it is clear that there is a continued appetite for remote learning, building on a trend that predates the pandemic. From 2013 to 2018, enrollment in online programs approved by CDE increased 31%. 

Jeff Roberts, a member of the Denver Public Schools’ technology department, stacks computers ready to be distributed to students for online learning in April 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

COVID-19 normalized online learning over the last 15 months. Kottenstette said CDE has seen an increase in the number of applications submitted by single districts and groups of districts for online programs for next year. He anticipates that enrollment within designated online schools will be higher than it’s been historically. Last fall, those programs experienced significant growth with 32,321 students having registered in online programs — 9,873 more students than the year before, according to preliminary data from CDE.

It’s too early to know how that enrollment figure will change, Kottenstette said, but he expects students to flow between in-person and virtual schooling.

“I anticipate seeing that access to virtual learning opportunities will become more prevalent and students will be able to access that much more easily than they would have in the past, whether that is through a designated school or program, or whether that is through a local offering within their brick-and-mortar environments,” he said.    

As districts begin to plan how school will play out in the fall, some are continuing their own online programs while others will keep partnering with outside programs, like Colorado Digital Learning Solutions. The state-supported online outlet supplements districts’ classes, often offering electives and advanced courses the districts don’t have the bandwidth to offer.

CDLS has played a key role in instructing students during the pandemic. In 2018-19, CDLS educated 2,117 students throughout the fall, spring and summer terms. That number jumped to 3,584 students during the 2019-20 school year and 7,565 students during the most recent school year, according to data from CDLS.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

The surge in demand prompted a hiring scramble, with CDS adding more than 100 instructors in August, said Dan Morris, executive director of CDLS. The program also expanded to offer courses for K-5 students and created a new option in which teachers from districts could use CDLS’s online curriculum and courses to teach their students.

A CDLS report from the end of April shows the online program supported students from 162 schools in 133 districts, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services and charter schools. 

Morris noted that individual class enrollments have dipped as more kids returned to classrooms dropping to about 11,200 in the spring from 13,200 in the fall. The majority of districts CDLS has partnered with have been small and rural and remained open the whole school year. Still, those districts had students who opted to stay remote, Morris said.

CDLS estimates that enrollments for the coming year will decrease 40%-50% from where they were during the 2020-21 school year, with the sharpest declines among K-5 students. But even if those decreases play out, enrollment numbers will significantly surpass 2019-20. CDLS has tallied more than 300 registrations for the summer term, down from 1,000 last summer, but still much higher than in the years before the pandemic. 

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Morris suspects that credit recovery is driving some of the summer enrollment and will also influence some fall registrations. But he has also observed that within districts allowing pre-registrations for fall, students are largely returning to asking for advanced placement courses, elective classes and classes that woud supplement the rest of their course load — rather than full online programs.

Morris said most kids learn best in an in-person environment, but an online component can go a long way in bolstering academic opportunities for students.

More districts are developing online programs as part of their high schools — not to replace in-person classes but to expand them, which Morris sees as a critical step for the future. He wants school districts to begin to view online schooling as an “instructional strategy that is available for all of their kids to take advantage of.”

It’s one stepping stone on the path to preparing kids for life after high school.

“Online learning is a component of what most adults experience either going through college or in their current work,” Morris said. “I think we would be doing a disservice to our kids if we didn’t prepare them for that reality.”

Ken Haptonstall, program director of Colorado Empowered Learning, the state agency that oversees CDLS, shares that optimism.

“I see it progressing to a point where kids can really start learning any time anywhere,” Haptonstall said. Districts gave kids one-to-one devices, like laptops and Chromebooks so that they could learn in any setting.

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But getting to that point won’t be easy, he said, particularly as many educators believe learning happens only when a student is in a physical classroom and as the state’s school funding formula is framed around in-person learners.

Haptonstall believes the pandemic has made progress in opening more students up to a more flexible style of learning, one that, for example, may better allow teens to accomplish more schoolwork late at night, when many are most alert.

He also predicts that online learning will reshape Colorado’s school choice landscape, which until now has mostly been defined by brick-and-mortar schools. Remote learning represents a whole other “third dimension of learning out there,” Haptonstall said, and he anticipates districts will have to be able to support online learning locally or risk losing students.

More private schools, charter schools and for-profits will likely begin offering online options, Haptonstall said, “because there’s a market out there for them.”

Some districts are planning for fully remote programs. Others are narrowing their focus to classroom learning.

Remote learning wasn’t an entirely easy-breezy experience for Madi, the rising sophomore attending Cañon City High School. She found Spanish to be a more challenging subject to learn as she had to take a ton of notes and couldn’t always find an opportunity to ask her teacher questions. Her algebra class, however, was her hardest one to pursue online. Madi describes herself as a visual learner who needs to actually see math equations. She struggled to learn remotely, though benefitted from videos she had to watch for the class, pausing to write equations down step by step.

Remote learning did help solve some of Madi’s problems, including being easily distracted in the classroom. 

“With the teacher, I can’t just put them on repeat 24/7,” she said.

Madi Smith, 15, works on her stepdad’s laptop at her Pueblo West home on Saturday, May 29, 2021. The Cañon City High School student will take courses from afar next year through the high school’s online program. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

But for many students, online schooling adds more hurdles than advantages. 

Rhiannon Wenning, a Jefferson Junior/Senior High School social studies teacher, taught remote students, hybrid students and in-person students all at the same time during the 2020-21 school year, but aside from a summer school section last year, had little online experience in her 20-year career to draw from.

Wenning’s students varied in their abilities to excel in remote schooling.

“Some did amazingly online and were very successful, some were not successful at all,” she wrote in an email. “Some performed the same as they did online as they did in-person. In person is preferred, but only if it is safe.”

She found students who adapted to online learning were those who had “internal motivation” and stayed on top of time management and organization while minimizing distractions. But others who hadn’t mastered those soft skills, who had to juggle work and school demands, or who were more deeply impacted by a sense of isolation challenged them in making academic strides.

Wenning will teach fully in person at her Edgewater school at the start of the next year, but she anticipates that with how well remote learning worked for many students and families, it will continue and likely expand.

Rhiannon Wenning prepares lesson plans for her AP World History students from her home on Oct. 29, 2020, in Lakewood. Wenning teaches 9th and 11th graders at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School in Edgewater. Since teaching her classes online, she placed inspirational signs on the wall behind her that her students can see. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Her district, Jeffco Public Schools, is rolling out a new online program after the most recent school year saw a maximum of 20,000 students electing to be learning remotely fulltime — out of more than 80,000 kids total. The Jeffco Remote Learning Program will give students in preschool through 12th grade an online space for synchronous learning with teachers brought on specifically for the remote option. The district has hired 33 teachers for the program, with another 16 positions to fill. Currently, 740 students are enrolled in the program for next year.

The program will operate beside Jeffco Virtual Academy, which gives students the opportunity to complete classes asynchronously so that they take the lead in time management and organization.

The momentum behind Jeffco’s remote learning excites Community Superintendent Matthew Walsh, who said the approach introduces a new level of flexibility for students’ education in the future. One possibility: students could tie together in-person classes during one part of the day with work experiences or asynchronous classes during another part of the day.

“There’s a lot of new freedoms there,” Walsh said.

Other large Colorado districts are also forging ahead with a remote learning option for the fall. Douglas County School District has created an online-only program for students, the eDCSD Remote Learning Program. In an email the district sent to families last month, it describes the program as “a transitional, one-year option of synchronous, remote learning for families and students who are not able, or comfortable returning to in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year.” 

The program, which will differ from what the district most recently offered students, will have its own teachers, staff, schedules, programming and specialized services. Students in the program will not be part of classes at their neighborhood school but will take live courses in a set schedule.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s biggest district, is also offering a remote learning program for K-12 students. Those who opt to stay online for the school year will not be taught by teachers at their current school, but they will retain their spot at their school for 2022-23. DPS students who start school online in the fall will not be able to change modes of learning and transition to in-person classes during the year.

In one of Colorado’s farther-flung communities, Cañon City, the district is pushing forward Tigers Online, its remote program named for its mascot. Cañon City High School Principal Bill Summers anticipates that about 5% of high schoolers will rely completely on virtual learning in the fall while another 15%-20% will likely take a blended approach to learning.

District Superintendent George Welsh envisions that number growing in future years as teachers become more comfortable delivering instruction online and as families better adjust to receiving it that way.

Welsh, too, pointed to the need to tee kids up for a “blended work environment” that has emerged across industries during the pandemic.

“If we’re going to prepare kids for this work world, we better give them some form of this experience while they’re in school,” Welsh said.

Other smaller rural Colorado districts are largely steering away from remote learning for the 2021-22 school year. Buena Vista School District, near the center of the state, did not offer remote learning this school year and does not plan to incorporate it next year. Superintendent Lisa Yates said the district of about 1,000 students made remote learning accommodations for kids when they had to be quarantined. She’s confident it will be safe once again for students to be back in classrooms next year.

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“While we believe and hope that students will be in person with us, splitting the school district so that there’s some online and some in person is not how we want to prioritize our investment in learning,” Yates said.

East Grand School District, in Granby, also will not provide a fully remote learning plan for its 1,3000 students in the fall. The district has long partnered with CDLS to open up online courses to students, but during the pandemic used the program to offer a fully remote option for families not yet ready to return to classrooms, Superintendent Frank Reeves said.

East Grand started the school year with a little more than 300 students completing classes online. That number dipped to about 160 during the second semester, Reeves said. 

The district polled families who remained engaged in classes through CDLS, and fewer than 10 families said they would like to see remote learning remain an option. And those families weren’t necessarily committed to continuing remote learning but still wanted the possibility, Reeves said.

But the district won’t do away with online learning altogether. Reeves envisions a growing number of students tackling school with a blended approach. And while he doesn’t believe that remote learning was a tremendous success in his district, noting that there are a lot of signs that students simply went through the motions of their coursework and didn’t necessarily learn, he knows that online learning did the trick for some others. A couple of students, Reeves said, could work with their principal or counselor to continue learning fully online, likely through CDLS.

Even as his district focuses on a mass return to in-person learning next school year, Reeves expects that remote learning is here to stay in Colorado. Many families who stuck with remote learning throughout the school year did so “out of convenience,” Reeves said, as it better aligned with their family routines and structures.

And as many teachers have embraced technology and quickly learned how to deliver their lessons in a more digital world, Reeves sees remote learning enhancing the quality of education kids get.

“It’s forcing us to really look at how we teach,” he said, “and how we use technology.”

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