Social-distancing efforts have changed nearly every facet of our lives in recent weeks, from grocery shopping to employment. And with Colorado school closures expected to stretch into the summer, educators are confronting a baffling question: What does a completely digital classroom look like?
“Everything is going to be totally adjusted,” said Shanti Savage, a second grade teacher in Dolores School District Re-4A.
On March 18, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis officially closed all the state’s schools through April 17, saying “it’s increasingly unlikely” that schools would reopen before the end of the school year. Local districts have been scrambling to come up with solutions and offer virtual learning to all their students in a meaningful and equitable way.
Staff have been using their extended spring breaks to change directions rapidly – to reorient their own structures and that of district families.
“We’ve really emphasized, start slow, let’s not overwhelm parents,” said Dolores Superintendent Lis Richard. “This is different; we don’t get to mandate schedules to families, so let’s just step into this slowly. So that’s what we’re doing.”
Teachers have spent a few weeks preparing materials and training, she said.
Dolores and Mancos schools are set to begin remote teaching Monday. Cortez students have a week before it begins.
Mancos secondary Principal John Marchino said the district is trying to keep everything “as normal as possible,” from school routines to class schedules. One of the hardest parts about the process is the lack of social connection, he said.
“We’re social people,” he said. “I talk to kids, they miss being in school.”
The Mancos School District Re-6 is following the stay-at-home order as much as possible, but for now, Marchino will be on campus in case families need to contact administrators.
Jeanette Allen, director of curriculum and instruction in Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1, said staff are trying to determine how to accommodate different family situations, particularly in this turbulent time, and how to make the lessons valuable.
“Mostly we’re also trying to be very thoughtful about it being meaningful learning,” Allen said. “Just sitting a kid in front of a program can or cannot be meaningful learning, so that’s some of the conversations that we’re having.”
What it looks likeA wide range of instructional tools is available for educators, but figuring out how to implement them and acquaint students with them is challenging.
In Dolores, elementary teachers are asked to hold one live-video session every day with their class, and at the secondary level, each subject’s instructor is asked to hold one or two sessions a week, Richard said. Teachers also are expected to hold “office hours” with times that families can contact instructors with questions.
The Mancos secondary school plans to follow existing schedules as much as possible, Marchino said, by holding video sessions at the time core classes currently take place, using resources that students are familiar with and maintaining existing routines – just adapting them for online.
For Mancos elementary students, teachers will provide lessons no longer than 30 minutes per content area, said Principal Cathy Epps. She plans to dress up as Ms. Frizzle and record a video of herself reading aloud a “Magic School Bus” book to her students every morning.
“I want to make sure I continue the connection I have students and families,” she said.
Many secondary students are familiar with Google Classroom, a free tool designed to help teachers and students share files and interact – all three districts plan to use it in their instruction. But getting younger children accustomed to digital learning platforms presents other obstacles, especially since students will be completing lessons on their own time.
“We’re competing with media everywhere, especially social media,” Richard said. “Our teachers are used to having a captive audience in class, and they don’t have that now.” They’ve been pushing teachers to create colorful, engaging lessons in which students can interact with one another and possibly even go on virtual field trips.
Along with Google Classroom, elementary students will use Lexia, Khan Academy, Waterford Early Learning and Newsela. All students in kindergarten through 12th grade use Discovery Education, Richard said.
Dolores and Mancos both have a 1:1 Chromebook system, meaning all students are assigned a laptop. Secondary students are permitted to take theirs home, but elementary Chromebooks typically stayed at school. Now, Dolores elementary students and Mancos students in first through fifth grades are allowed to take laptops home.
In Re-1, staff are evaluating the needs of families, to determine who should receive a Chromebook, Allen said.
Teachers plan instructionStudents have begun picking up their devices and gathering other virtual-learning materials to supplement the virtual learning. This week, they will continue to arrive on staggered schedules to avoid crowding.
“I think especially when you’re little, you need books, not just computers,” Savage said. “Even some kids, I gave them a 100s chart or some blocks to help them with math.”
Assignments for her 23 students are posted Monday and due by Friday, so that students can complete them working around families’ schedules.
“A lot of parents are staying at home with kids, and then also trying to work,” Savage said. “People’s schedules are just really crazy right now.”
Classroom management is a crucial part of elementary school teaching, but Savage said she’s not too concerned about how that will go for their daily 30-minute video teaching sessions, as her students miss school and their classmates.
“I think that especially with any kind of live sessions, that it’s not going to be any kind of an issue,” she said. “Because they’re really looking forward to it.”
The live teaching sessions will be recorded, so students who can’t participate during the live session can watch videos later and share comments on the lesson, Savage said.
Third grade teacher Angie Lowe also said she’s starting out slow and trying to remain flexible for families.
“This is new for everyone,” she said. “There will be a huge learning curve, and we’re all expecting bumps along the way, but I think that we’ll manage and get through them all.”
It’s hard to know how the video sessions will go for her students, she said. As educators begin online staff meetings, running into snags of their own, they wonder about online learning.
“Will I be able to see every student? I’m not sure,” she said.
On Monday, she plans to start class by continuing their read-aloud of “The One and Only Ivan.”
“I think that’s a great way to just bring everybody back together, is continue on that read-aloud, just to check in and see how everyone’s doing,” Lowe said. “This is such an unprecedented situation that we are in, and I think there are varying degrees of student anxiety that go with it.”
Somewhere down the line, as students become familiarized with Google Chat and other platforms, she would like to incorporate more projects into her lessons.
“I really do hope to be getting kids outside, and exploring and doing some science experiments and having them bring that back to those Google Chats,” Lowe said.
Accessibility is a hurdleMaking sure all students can access the lessons is a big hurdle for districts.
“We’re trying to be very thoughtful about our family situations,” Allen said. “We sometimes have families working, we have some families who are out of work, and it’s a very stressful time. We have families with multiple kids and may only have one computer to use.”
Spotty internet is another obstacle in the area, and Re-1 is working out details, she said.
Dolores schools plan to open up rooms to families that don’t have internet access.
“Any families who don’t have accessibility, we are putting a rotating schedule together for our library and our computer labs, for them to utilize them,” Richard said. “But there will be a protocol in place that follows all the requirements the governor’s put in place for distancing and disinfecting and all of that. But we will make our spaces available to those who don’t have accessibility in their homes.”
The district also states on its website that district buildings have Wi-Fi, which families may access outside.
Marchino said internet providers are expanding their offerings too. Verizon and AT&T will be increasing data capacity for their customers, at no additional charge, and Spectrum Mobile is offering two months of free internet service for new customers.
Schools are heading into a whole new world, but teachers are excited to see their students, even if it’s just on a screen. And while virtual instruction cannot replace “the real thing,” the new method will push teachers to plan engaging lessons, said Dave Hopcia, a secondary science teacher in Dolores.
“I have been teaching in Dolores for 30 years so I am one of those ‘seasoned’ instructors who has had to learn technology as my career progressed,” Hopcia said. “The movement to online will be challenging, but to be honest, I am looking forward to that challenge. Sometimes when instructors get out of their comfort zone real growth can happen.”