About this series
Thursday marked one year since Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order as COVID cases in Colorado surpassed 1,000. Starting today, The Leader is taking a look at the impacts of the pandemic and the adjustments it prompted in organizations including city government, health care, law enforcement, nonprofits and schools.
Today: School during the pandemic: The good, the bad, the ugly, and what the future holds
Promptly at 9 a.m. Juliann Daley awaited her students to log in to her class through WebEx, a platform for which she had to learn the ins and outs last year when classes moved online and became the core of her routine for the past 12 months.
She remembers where she was when St. Vrain Valley School District learned about the first COVID-19 case in the county.
“Last year I was at the Teacher Advisory Council (meeting) when (Superintendent Don) Haddad learned there was a case in Boulder County, the very first case in Boulder County,” she said.
“I can't remember the exact timeline ... but we were at school on a Thursday, and they told us, the students and the teachers, to not come back because of COVID and we're going to go virtual. That was right before spring break,” Daley said.
Since that fateful Thursday, many things in life and work for Daley, a fourth grade teacher at Alpine Elementary, have changed. A mom of a former SVVSD student, her history with the district goes well beyond her eight years of teaching at the elementary level, and this has been a year of changes like no other, she said.
“It went from being in the classroom one day with my kids and then the next day not being with them, and not being in person with them anymore for the rest of that school year,” she said. “We learned very quickly, and we adapted very quickly as human beings. It's just amazing how much we learned in a short amount of time.”
On March 12, 2020, Haddad sent the email to families that would launch the roller coaster the next 12 months would be.
“At the strong recommendation of Boulder Public Health, we will be closing all schools in St. Vrain, beginning tomorrow, March 13, 2020, through the end of Spring Break,” he wrote.
The safety and well-being of students, teachers and staff has remained a constant at the top of SVVSD’s priorities as it made decisions on learning format and platforms, according to Haddad.
“... Everything that we do, always, focuses on keeping our kids safe, keeping our teachers and our staff safe and our community safe. And, with that comes quite a few challenges,” he said.
Changes permeated family, school life
Following state and local health department orders and establishing protocols based on a moving target was often “frustrating for everyone involved,” Haddad said.
Children in the United States attend K-12 public schools for an average of 1,195 hours a year, while a full-time working parent averages twice as much time, about 2,450 hours per year, between work and commute, according to a 2020 schooling and staffing survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Parents who experienced job losses in the food, restaurant and service industries struggled as school moved online, said Tere García, executive director of Engaged Latino Parents Advancing Student Outcomes, or ELPASO, a local Latino-led nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap through the support and engagement of parents.
With millions of children across the country spending no time at school this school year, parents have had to adjust their schedules. Some were unable to seek new employment while others were forced to resign to take care of their school-aged children.
Language barriers and a lack of digital access and literacy also presented added challenges for parents and English-learning students who had to engage with teachers and school staff over the internet, Garcia said.
Compared to years prior, ELPASO has seen an increase of about 20% in parents accessing its programs, which are designed to share education-related information and resources for parents of school-age children, especially for content and technology support, and referrals to basic services.
Silver linings across the board
As much struggle as the pandemic has brought, there also have been silver linings for families going through the changes in education.
Meosha Brooks, a working mother of four, said the pandemic has helped her family connect with one another.
“I think it gave us an opportunity to think about where we were as a family, how we interacted and communicated, as well as some of our own personal successes and our areas of improvement,” she said.
Having lost loved ones to COVID-19, Brooks said she tried to focus on the upside and the doors the pandemic opened for her children, three of whom are attending school via SVVSD’s hybrid learning model, and one of whom attends elementary school four days a week
“What I've noticed, being a former educator myself and still an educator at a higher education institution level, (is) online doesn't provide the foundation that a lot of the students really need. It's accessible, and it makes it easier for when they are missing (school),” she said. “But I also wanted to ensure that they were still getting the academic content and education that they needed. … I didn't want them to fall behind too much because each one of them I know learns very differently.”
Throughout the past year, SVVSD has engaged in conversations with families to ensure there were options for kids needing additional teacher time and extracurricular activities.
“One of the major challenges was that I had to make sure that my children, particularly the two younger ones, were not only doing the work but also receiving the actual teaching of the content,” Brooks said. “Something I learned from a perspective of looking at this through the lens of a child is that sometimes we have to step back and observe what it is we are taking in. Are we giving them the information? Are we just giving them busy work?”
For her daughter, Lauren Brooks, a student at Erie High School, the toughest parts of the changes in the last year, aside from the academics, have been being separated from her peers at school.
“There's just so many things happening and I miss being able to hang out with people because it just so happens that I fall in a different group than all of my friends,” she said of her hybrid learning schedule. “So I spend most of my time alone at school right now. But when you go fully in-person, hopefully I’ll get to spend more time with them.”
SVVSD students will be back in school buildings full-time this week.
As a member of the Accountability Committee at Erie High School and an active participant in the inclusion and diversity work of SVVSD, Meosha Brooks is curious to see the impact the pandemic will have on the social aspects of education 20 to 30 years from now, and said she is hoping the near future will bring opportunities for more interaction.
“Some people they need to touch, they need hugs. Some people need to talk, they need to be able to just be in the presence of someone, and those things we missed. So that is one thing I'd say I would love to have back sooner rather than later,” she said, adding she hopes her children will have learned to find inner strength and to look beyond themselves to help others as well.
“This is not the first time we have been stopped or put in a standstill as a world, so to speak, and it won't be the last.,” she said. “ … The academics will come, and you will begin to learn again, but that won't be the last of it. Those … people-oriented aspects are something that I would pass on to my children.”
What the future holds
Jaclyn Scott, a language arts teacher at Trail Ridge Middle School, said learning to pivot quickly and maximize what little instruction time she had with students was key for her as an educator.
“What’s great about SVVSD is that we adjusted quickly and gave students the technology tools to be able to access education and access learning, specifically for me in language arts,” she said. “We took technology at a whole new level, and don't have to be in my classroom to do that.”
With clear expectations and structure, Scott said she sought to maximize the contact she had with each student, hoping to make their time in class meaningful.
“Among the top things for me was… connection with students, making sure you understand them and their needs, enhancing their learning and putting the support they need to continue their growth,” she said. “To show them that I'm going through this as well, we are adjusting and learning together. It’s not me having all the answers, but instead giving that time and space for students to hear what's going on with me and how we are actually connected through all of this.”
With a majority of SVVSD employees vaccinated, the district is gearing up to on Monday welcome students at all grade levels back in school buildings for four days a week of in-person learning.
Haddad said he hopes this will be the beginning of more conversations about the importance of having children in school.
“Something that I've always wanted to do was increase the amount of time that our children are actually in school and this now has caused us to be able to now say, (we’re) going to offer these opportunities in school for our students throughout the month of June,” he said, adding Project Launch, a literacy and math summer program for elementary students, will provide additional learning opportunities for interested families this summer, among other summer programming options.
“We have to set up a system, which we have, (where) every single child, regardless of their social economics, regardless of any barriers that they might have, they can participate fully, in the highest quality experiences, with the highest quality of resources, so they can thrive,” Haddad said. “(Equity) is not a project, it is deeply embedded in everything we do, for every child.”