More Colorado families consider online education as COVID-19 risks loom over upcoming school year

When growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus triggered the abrupt shuttering of Colorado schools in March, families and faculty were forced to finish the academic year from the confines of their homes.

The transition wasn’t easy for many.

Parents had to double as caretakers and teachers, while students tried to adapt to a revolving door of online classroom solutions. Educators needed to find new ways to engage with students practically overnight, as districts doled out laptops and internet hotspots to ensure families had the technology to connect virtually.

It was a massive adjustment, parents said, compounded by the stress of Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide stay-at-home order, which moved living, working and schooling under the same roof.

But that unusual end to the spring semester afforded students and parents a trial run in remote education. As districts across the state unveil plans to reopen schools, more Coloradans are considering foregoing traditional education and instead enrolling in online academic programs. The risks associated with sending kids back to school for in-person instruction are too great, parents said, even with new mask, social distancing and sanitation protocols.

“I don’t understand how our district believes they can put the safety protocols in place to protect the student body as a mass in a full return to school,” said Arvada resident Greg Nidy, who has an incoming fourth grader, Jackson, and third grader, Paisley, in Jeffco Public Schools. “Absent a guarantee by the district that there are legitimate protocols in place to ensure the security of my children, we would be 95% likely to do a remote learning environment.”

Brittany Nidy, left, blows bubbles for ...
Brittany Nidy, left, blows bubbles for her daughters, Cora, 3, center, and Paisley, 7, at their home in Arvada on Thursday, July 2, 2020. The Nidys likely will enroll their children in remote learning this fall over concerns about the coronavirus.

Mounting parental concerns

Since the spring semester ended, leaders of Colorado school district have been devising plans for a return to school in the fall. Many first proposed a blended format, with some in-person classes supplemented by remote learning, to reduce the number of kids in classrooms and accommodate social distancing.

But a newly released report from Metro Denver Partnership for Health recommended schools fully reopen using risk-reduction strategies said to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. While there’s certainly the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in a school, the report’s authors said children are not the primary drivers of disease transmission and that keeping facilities closed does more harm than good for their social and emotional well-being.

That prompted a number of districts — including Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest, and Jeffco Public Schools — to pivot to hosting in-person instruction five days a week for all students this fall, with the option to choose full-time online education. At the same time, rates of infection among younger Coloradans are rising as overall COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing across the state.

Leaders are confident they can safely reopen schools by screening student and staff temperatures upon arrival each day, marking one-way hallways, cohorting students into groups that stay together throughout the day, designating specific facility entrances and exits, staggering arrival and dismissal times, and adhering to other guidance from health experts. Some districts, including DPS, will require students and teachers to wear masks.

Still, returning to the classroom doesn’t sit well with Colorado Springs resident Melissa Whitworth-Mathes, whose 16-year-old son William has asthma. As site coordinator for Children’s Literacy Center, which offers one-on-one tutoring, Whitworth-Mathes has seen firsthand how interactive children are in an educational setting. She doesn’t believe teachers will be able to enforce mask-wearing and other safety measures.

After years of homeschooling, Whitworth-Mathes hoped to send William and her 11-year-old daughter Meredith to public school. But she decided to wait another year.

“Everyone’s just sort of assuming everybody’s going to be on their best behavior and everything’s going to work out,” she said. “Online school really does seem to be the only option we have to choose right now.”

Tracy Paskoff, of Arvada, agrees. While she’d prefer to send her son, Hayes, back to school at Van Arsdale Elementary, she has reservations. Paskoff also works as the sole occupational therapist at a local charter school, which requires her to mingle between grades and classrooms to reach all her students. She hopes both she and Hayes can leverage remote education this fall.

“Going back to school and putting groups of people, even if they’re small groups, inside enclosed classrooms seems like a very bad idea to me,” Paskoff said. “It just seems like there’s some denial of what the results could be.”

Chris Paskoff, left, and his wife ...
Chris Paskoff, left, and his wife Tracy, right, work on a science project with their son Hayes, 6, in their backyard in Arvada on July 1, 2020. The Paskoffs have reservations about sending Hayes back to in-person school this fall.

Colorado’s online learning landscape

Online education is nothing new in Colorado, which boasts more than 60 accredited programs, according to the state Department of Education. Some are associated exclusively with brick-and-mortar school districts, such as the St. Vrain Online Global Academy and the Westminster Virtual Academy. Others, like Colorado Connections Academy, accept students throughout the state.

All public online schools are free for residents, though they vary in format and focus, said Tillie Elvrum, board president of the Colorado Coalition for Cyberschool Families, which advocates for virtual schooling. Some adhere to a general education curriculum, much like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, while others enable students to specialize in a trade or accrue college credits.

During the 2018-2019 school year, there were 21,246 Colorado kids enrolled in online education programs — a 31% increase over five years prior, the state education department reported. Though that represents a small portion of Colorado students — about 2.5% of the overall K-12 public school population — experts say interest is growing. This year, it’s due in no small part to uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass expects 10% to 20% of the student body, or 8,000 to 15,000 students, will opt for the district’s online option in lieu of returning physically to school. In previous years, only about 1% of Jeffco’s students enrolled in the virtual program.

Colorado Connections Academy served about 2,800 remote students during the 2019-2020 school year, said executive director Chaille Hymes. Applications for the coming year are up 30% and the school expects to enroll 3,500 students in the fall.

“There’s a lot families who are wanting consistency. They felt very upended this year and it was very chaotic,” Hymes said. “By applying for our school and coming to us next year, they at least know they’ll have consistency throughout the year.”

Stability is perhaps one of the biggest benefits to online schooling in light of the coronavirus. When schools shut down in March, students and faculty in virtual programs were not affected because they already had systems in place for working remotely. Some, like Branson School Online, were instrumental in helping the rest of their district in southeastern Colorado adapt, said principal Leanna Christians.

“We were on spring break when (the pandemic) hit. Then when we came back, it was business as usual,” Christians said. “All field trips for spring got canceled because we couldn’t go anywhere. But day-to-day classwork, nothing changed.”

Proponents say the remote learning environment allows students to customize their education. Advanced learners can move more quickly through lessons or dig deeper into subjects and challenge themselves individually. Students can also move at a slower pace if they’re struggling with a subject or concept.

“That, to me, is huge. I worked in a brick-and-mortar school, I know the kid who got held back or the kid who had to go out for extra time to meet with a special teacher. All of those stigmas are gone,” Christians said.

Advocates maintain there’s a misconception that virtual learning is less challenging academically than in-person school. Hymes at Colorado Connections Academy said students complete six hours of “pretty rigorous curriculum” each day that includes core classes, electives like art, sign language and physical education, as well as supplemental labs.

Paskoff’s son Hayes thrived in his virtual Jeffco classes this spring because he wasn’t distracted by his peers or other aspects of the classroom. Nidy’s kids also had a great remote experience, thanks to the dedication and communication of Jeffco’s teachers, he said.

Hayes Paskoff, 6, plays on a ...
Hayes Paskoff, 6, plays on a rope ladder before working on a science project with his parents in their backyard in Arvada on July 1, 2020.

The challenges of online learning

But the remote format isn’t a fit for every family. It requires an immense amount of self-discipline and commitment, and parental support is also important for success, Christians said.

“There’s no bell that rings that tells you to go to class. There’s no bus that comes and delivers you to the door. You have to be responsible for your timing,” she said. “For a lot of kids, it’s a big, big, big learning curve.”

An April survey conducted by the state Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative showed that some Coloradans found it tough to adjust to online learning. Of the 500 parents surveyed, 35% said their children did not participate in any remote learning after schools shut down in March.

Many also do not have the option to consider a virtual approach. An estimated 52,918 students statewide do not have access to a WiFi-enabled device, the survey said, and an estimated 65,860 do not have internet at home. Those figures do not include students who may have inadequate or slow internet access.

For Meg Conley and her 8-year-old daughter Viola, remote learning in the spring was “a catastrophe.” Viola, who has dyslexia, felt disconnected and overwhelmed by the transition to virtual classes, Conley said.

Conley has been homeschooling Viola and her 11-year-old sister Margaret to make up for lost ground at the end of the semester. Each morning, they unpack a basket filled with the day’s lessons, including poetry, world history and crafts. It usually takes an hour-and-a-half to three hours to complete.

It’s also practice for Conley, who said she’d consider homeschooling the girls full time if Denver Public Schools is forced to go remote again.

“There’s a reason we don’t do remote learning with kids this age in general, but especially kids with learning differences,” Conley said. “It took a toll on both girls’ mental and emotional health.”

When kids learn remotely, they often miss out on socializing with their peers and building community — things that concerned all parents interviewed for this story. Many online programs have in-person field trips and networking opportunities for families, but because of the pandemic, those activities have been suspended.

That’s why Iliana Rentería believes many parents embrace a hybrid learning model. A New Castle resident and mom of two, Rentería works with many Latino families through her job at Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering literacy.

When she recently polled parents on Facebook, most preferred a mix of online and in-person classes. Many parents found remote learning difficult to implement and thought their children were not learning as well, she said. But they are also cautious of COVID.

“They would rather have a teacher that is coaching (kids) and telling them what to do,” Rentería said. “And maybe come to school once a week or twice a week and have some socialization in there, like some sense of normalcy.”

The second most popular option was an online curriculum, she added. That’s the one she’s most seriously considering for her 13-year-old daughter Annette and 8-year-old son Leonardo.

Whether the coronavirus pandemic inspires a cultural shift toward online learning remains to be seen. But at the very least, parents now know they have additional tools to support their children’s education, Elvrum said — even if they only use them for a year or two.

For many, it’s not only about academics, but also peace of mind.

“Online education proves in-person instruction is not required for education to happen,” Whitsworth-Mathes said. No matter how the pandemic evolves this fall, her kids will be secure knowing they have a plan for education.

“It’s one less thing they have to think or worry about.”