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By Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat Colorado
Citing costs and logistical problems, and after seeing the slow student progress online learners made compared with their peers, Adams 14 officials will limit remote learning next year.
Elementary students all will have to return to full-time in-person learning.
Students in middle and high school may sign up for one of 300 spots to learn remotely through Colorado Online Learning Solutions, the company running the district’s online program next school year. But that learning will only be asynchronous, meaning it won’t have live teacher instruction, so likely may not be right for many students, officials said.
The decision to limit online learning makes Adams 14 an outlier among Denver metro area districts, many of which plan to offer a robust virtual option with live instruction next year. The district is taking this approach even though families opted for remote instruction this year at higher rates than in neighboring districts.
In Adams 14, more than half of all students initially choose to stay in remote learning when the district started offering in-person opportunities this spring. By the end of the school year, about 40% of students, including more than half of the district’s Black students, were still learning online. Despite not having recently surveyed parent perceptions, district officials are confident families will return in the fall.
“We believe we’re able to provide an environment that minimizes the risks,” said Shelagh Burke, the district’s chief academic affairs officer. “We firmly believe that our students are better served in person. Our youngest of learners really need to be inside the classroom.”
Some online learners lagged far behind their in-person peers
Most Adams 14 parents who talked to Chalkbeat weren’t aware of the district’s plans for next year. Some want to send their children back to in-person learning, but others aren’t so sure.
One mother said she thinks the worst of the pandemic is over and is ready to have her son back in person. Another mother said if other activities are opening up, schools should too.
JoLeen Deaguero, who has two high school students who have attended in person since it was offered, said she’s glad students will be in person.
Maria Rodriguez said that she had not heard details about next year’s plan even though she recently registered her children for next year, as the district kept insisting that she do it soon to help its planning.
Burke said that the district is collecting feedback informally through those school registrations, and that it has not heard any objections to plans for next year.
But when Rodriguez learned that her children would have to attend in person full time, she said she was not sure if she’s comfortable with that. Her children have been participating in sports and she’s seen people no longer wearing masks or social distancing, and she worries that the relaxation of guidelines wasn’t created with families like hers in mind. Her younger children aren’t vaccinated, and although the older family members are, she still considers at least one at high risk.
“I’ll have to think it over, but it does concern me,” Rodriguez said. “My husband is older and at higher risk so I’ll have to think about when everyone starts getting sick again in November what consequences that might have for us.”
Burke said students with a doctor’s note that says they need to stay home could still get accommodations, such as homebound services, just as they did before the pandemic.
“We would look at, not the wants [of parents], but what is the medical professional saying,” Burke said.
Besides her health concerns, Rodriguez said she has to balance worries that her children have not learned as much being online.
“My kids got all As, maybe one B, and I was told they didn’t miss any work,” Rodriguez said. “But for me there were doubts. I asked several times for explanations of how their grades were calculated.”
She said she got an explanation but wasn’t convinced the grading was rigorous.
District test data shows that students who stayed online all year didn’t make as much progress as those learning in person. For instance, online third grade students had an average reading growth score of 27, compared with a growth score of 45 for those who went back to in-person learning. Gaps in math were similar.
Ninth grade students who stayed online, however, did make more progress than did their in-person peers. In reading, ninth graders who were online had an average growth score of 46, compared with 43 for students learning in person.
District officials attribute that exception to additional support for ninth grade students including help from math fellows provided by the nonprofit firm Blueprint. The district is expanding its contract with the company to more grade levels next year.
Open enrollment could send kids to four nearby districts with online options
Across the country, district and school leaders have had to balance the desire to get more students into the classroom where they are more likely to learn more, with the desire of some parents to continue remote learning, whether for health concerns, or because they found the model might suit them better. Colorado additionally has open enrollment, which means students can enroll in other districts or programs if their own district doesn’t have something they like.
Burke said Adams 14 officials aren’t worried about more families leaving the district.
Mapleton, Adams 12, 27J, and Westminster, four nearby districts that some Adams 14 families choose to attend, will offer online options for their students. Some are open for students from other districts, and some are not.
Aurora, another neighboring district, will offer three options, including a fully online program, fully in-person, or a flex option just for the first semester of next school year. In the flex option students will connect remotely to live in-person classes part of the week and do independent remote work for the rest of the week.
The Jeffco school district also announced earlier that it was creating a one-year program for online learning, in addition to its existing virtual school which is mostly for students able to do more independent learning. In the new online program, remote teachers will provide live, virtual instruction.
Burke said Adams 14 considered several other options but ran into challenges. Its teachers and their union said that they no longer wanted to do double duty, teaching both in person and online students.
But Adams 14 said it didn’t want to hire new teachers to exclusively run the online program, because even if it used COVID relief funds, it would not be able to sustain those employees in the long run. And dividing current teachers into some who taught exclusively online and others exclusively in-person could hurt class sizes and course offerings, Burke said.
Contracting with Colorado Online Learning Solutions per course and per student, the district estimates it will spend $630,000 for the 2021-22 school year. The alternatives would cost more, officials told the school board.
Deborah Figueroa, a co-president of the Adams 14 teachers union, said teachers weren’t opposed to having an online offering, and that some teachers are comfortable being in person, and others aren’t.
“It’s about quality instruction,” Figueroa said. “When you’re doing two different classes, physically and logistically, people don’t understand what it takes for the implementation. Teachers do feel their hands tied.”
But she said teachers believe families will want an online option next year that includes some live instruction.
“We could do it well, if we were organized,” Figueroa said. “I really think the online option is going to be something they’re going to need to look at again in the future.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.