School districts focusing on keeping connections, learning going for last weeks of remote school

Jen Garcia has connected with all 19 of her kindergarten students at Frederick’s Thunder Valley K-8 and helped them and their families get comfortable with the education platforms for remote learning.

She created strategies that include scavenger hunts, drawing lessons and read-out-louds to keep them engaged during remote class meetings and worked with her kindergarten team to develop meaningful lessons.

“Seeing them face-to-face helps keep our connection strong,” she said, adding she’s also loved seeing parents working with their children on lessons. “Parents are working just as hard as we are.”

Now, she said, she’s still exploring new ways to teach her students information and working on end-of-year activities that include individual virtual family meetings to talk about each student’s successes and end-of-year award.

“I want them to know that, even though we are not ending in a traditional classroom setting, they are still important, capable and loved,” she said.

With less than three weeks left in the school year, local school districts say almost all students now can access remote learning, allowing them to focus on keeping students connected and completing assignments.

About 96% of students in the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts have  been engaged — checking in with teachers, at a minimum — each week during remote learning. In the Adams 12 School District, engagement, which requires students complete at least some work, is around 92%.

For all three districts, the initial focus was making sure all students had devices and helping families without internet get connected, as well as helping families work through how to use those devices and the educational platforms and apps.

“We moved from an abrupt transition to trying to bring the best quality learning to our kids,” said Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski.

In St. Vrain Valley, Deputy Superintendent Jackie Kapushion said, her district had some advantages that made it easier to move to remote learning. Those included teachers already using digital materials in classes, with the district offering professional development on effective use of technology for around 10 years.

“Going to remote learning has been really streamlined,” she said. “Our objective now is to keep engagement high and use this time as learning time.”

Andy Freeman, an eighth grade science teacher at Longs Peak Middle School in Longmont, said all of his 55 students have engaged in some way since remote learning started.

He initially focused on engagement and connection, then moved to providing students the resources, explanations and examples they need to compete assignments.

“Oftentimes, I’ll make a supplemental video explanation if I notice that students have the same question about a certain assignment,” he said. “It certainly requires adaptability.”

For his office hours, he said, he’s also tried to make things more interesting by switching out items each day in the fish tank behind him for students to find and wearing Harry Potter and Where’s Waldo costumes on Fridays.

While engagement overall is high, school district officials said, that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on reaching the remaining students. Another priority has been helping high school seniors on the edge of not graduating.

“How we look at engagement has really changed,” said Robbyn Fernandez, Boulder Valley area superintendent. “It was ‘can they log on, can they complete assignments?’ Now we’re digging so much deeper into those barriers. We want to make sure we have done absolutely every single thing we can to bridge that engagement gap.”

Officials in all three districts also have acknowledged that remote learning isn’t the ideal and is likely to widen learning gaps for some students.

“Are some kids going to fall behind — we would be very remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that possibility,” St. Vrain Valley Superintendent Don Haddad said at a recent school board meeting. “But it’s not going to happen because of a lack of effort on our part. We have flexibility, but we did not want to lower the bar. We want to keep kids on track to get to the next grade level.”

Another challenge is grading.

Sam Messier, Boulder Valley area superintendent, said it’s a balance between keeping students motivated and rewarding them for hard work while not penalizing those who don’t have the support, help or time to successfully complete all the assignments. Consistent, equitable and flexible is the goal, she said.

“Grades should never penalize a student without access,” she said. “Feedback is a higher priority than grades.”

Boulder Valley decided to skip report cards for elementary students, give middle school students pass/fail grades on report cards but actual grades on individual assignments, and continue to allow final letter grades for high schoolers — though final exams were canceled and some high schools are offering pass/fail as an option.

“We didn’t want to penalize those who worked very hard to earn a high grade in a high school class,” Messier said.

In St. Vrain Valley and Adams 12, students receive the same grades they had before schools closed, as long as they continue to actively participate in remote learning.

For some parents, however, it’s been tough to motivate students who don’t feel like their work “counts” because of the changes in grading policies.

Carmen Robertson, right, her father, Chris, and their dog, Elsa, walk around their apartment complex in Longmont on April 23. (Cliff Grassmick/ Staff Photographer)

Chris Robertson, whose eighth-grader Carmen and seventh-grader Davina attend Longmont’s Trail Ridge Middle School, said the grading policies aren’t helping with motivation. His daughters, good students in advanced classes, also have complained the online work is “too remedial,” he said.

He said it helps to let them take time off when the stress and anxiety of being cooped up and not seeing friends gets to be too much. Carmen added it can be hard to focus on school work, which she does mainly at night while her sister works during the day.

“They’re just doing the best they can,” Robertson said, noting he’s delivering groceries for Instacart while his wife works in home healthcare. “They might have a day where they don’t do anything, but will do schoolwork the next day. Just like an adult, they get cabin fever and don’t want to do anything.”

Roberston said he and his wife have been able to keep their daughters on track because they have flexible schedules, but would like to see more direct instruction from teachers and worry about classmates whose parents aren’t able to help.

Parents, students and teachers all say they desperately miss in-person learning.

The transition to learning at home has been especially difficult for working parents — and the difficulties have been compounded for some by language barriers, lack of study space and the need to share devices among multiple children.

Kristin DeLorenzo, who lives in south Boulder and has twin fourth-graders and an eighth-grader, was trying to help with remote learning while she and her husband worked remotely themselves. And with less flexibility in her husband’s job, she said, most of the work of helping her children fell on her.

It was so difficult to manage it all, she recently took a leave of absence from her job.

“I love my job, but I just couldn’t do it very well, and it was really hard for my kids to get the support they needed,” she said. “There was no time to take care of myself, my work, their work, the house. It was just getting to really be a struggle.”

While her eighth-grade daughter is more independent at 14, she said, her 9-year-old fourth graders need more help managing all the different virtual meetings — small groups, whole class, math groups — plus help with the classwork itself.

“The teachers are doing a really good job of putting all of the curriculum online, but it’s really hard for my kids to check on all their classes,” she said. “My kids aren’t that resistant to school. They have fun doing it. They just need some support.”

For other students, remote learning simply isn’t working.

Jennifer Atlas, who sons are in first and fourth grades at Superior’s Eldorado K-8, said her fourth grader with dyslexia was attending regular school for half a day and Hillside, a private school, for the other half before the shutdowns.

Now, she said, his remote learning is almost completely through Hillside, which is providing an hour-long, virtual session daily with her son and one other student.

“It’s his social time,” she said. “He feels comfortable with his teacher and his classmate. It’s where the majority of his school work is happening.”

Regular school assignments, she said, were creating too much conflict and were difficult to manage.

“We’re asking elementary kids to have the executive functioning skills of high schoolers,” she said. “Parents are having to spend a lot of time helping their kids. Nobody was prepared and everybody did the best they could, but I think a lot of parents have just said we’re going to do the minimum. They’re saying my child needs to feel safe and loved and that’s the most important thing.”

Camden Lockwood, 6, left, his brothers, Bennett, 9, and Abbott, 11, learn about the geography of the world on March 28 at their home in Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Sara Lockwood, a Boulder mom to three boys — ages 7, 9 and 11 — at Horizons K-8 Charter School, said the novelty of learning from home quickly wore off. While they’re completing their work, sometimes in just a couple hours a day, no one is motivated.

“The online stuff, it’s been more challenging than not,” she said. “They’re missing the social aspect. Not having that live interaction with teachers and peers has been a real struggle for them. They’re over it.”