Alamosa School District Assistant Superintendent Luis Murillo leaves a meeting with other administrators at Ortega Middle School in Alamosa on Friday Dec. 10, 2021. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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At Evelyn Gonzalez’s Denver high school, the Italian teacher, who luckily speaks Spanish, filled in last week for the Spanish teacher, who was out sick for two days.

So many students were absent from Haven Coleman’s history class at another high school that the teacher held off on teaching the day’s lesson rather than have to repeat it later for the missing kids. Coleman’s class had a study hall instead.

In Carbondale, an entire grade level at Crystal River Elementary switched to remote learning, not because teachers were sick, but because several of them were also parents of preschool-aged children quarantined at home.

If this past fall felt “mostly normal,” Assistant Principal Kendall Reiley said, then after winter break, “it felt like we were coming back into a different world.”

January’s massive COVID surge has tested pandemic-weary teachers, students, and families in new ways, with half-empty classrooms, missing teachers, and abrupt temporary switches to remote learning, often for just a number of days.

District leaders have mostly kept buildings open amid case rates that would have shuttered them a year ago. They cite the availability of vaccines, plus widespread concern about the toll virtual learning took on children’s mental health. Relaxed safety protocols are also giving schools new tools to stay open, like combining classes and shortening quarantine.

That doesn’t mean the past few weeks have been easy. Interviews with 20 Colorado students, parents, teachers, principals, and district administrators provide a window into disrupted learning and reveal deep divides over the best way forward. Some students say they’re worried about catching the virus but also dread a return to virtual schooling.

“Going remote learning is like going a step back to the past,” said Andrew Caballero, a sophomore at Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School. “Students should be able to go to school and interact with other students and not be home 24/7.”


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