Now that Colorado schools have been closed to in-person learning, and many will remain that way for the foreseeable future, school leaders are beginning to think about the fall.
It’s too early for leaders to say whether the first day of school will take place on campus or remotely in students’ kitchens and bedrooms. But the superintendent of the Denver district, Colorado’s largest, and the leader of a smaller rural one agreed Wednesday that the current coronavirus closures will have a deep impact on how educators approach next school year.
“At the end of the day, there’s going to be a lot of lost learning,” said Rob Stein, superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools, a 5,650-student school district in the Colorado mountains.
Stein and Susana Cordova, superintendent of the 92,000-student Denver Public Schools district, took part in a virtual panel discussion Wednesday called “Schooling in the Era of COVID-19.”
The two other participants were Michelle Murphy, the executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, and the former U.S. education secretary John King, now head of the organization Education Trust. The panel was sponsored by the advocacy organizations A Plus Colorado and Education Reform Now Colorado.
Here are five takeaways from the discussion.
The move to online learning has highlighted and exacerbated the gaps between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones, the district leaders said. Cordova noted that seven days into Denver’s remote learning, not all of the district’s 92,000 students have computers or internet access yet. Though the district is working to remedy that, barriers remain.
Stein noted that some older students who work in retail or fast food are now their family’s sole wage earner because their parents lost jobs in the tourism or construction industries amid the economic downturn.
Students who can’t access online lessons, or don’t have the time to complete them, shouldn’t be held back a grade or given failing marks, Stein and Cordova agreed.
And even for the students who can learn online, the superintendents worry they’ll fall behind.
“While our teachers are doing phenomenal work to support all our students, this is not like regular school,” Cordova said. “I’m not confident we’re going to make the kind of progress our students deserve.”
Efforts to catch students up, such as summer school, would cost money many districts don’t have. That means educators have to get ready for students who will be less prepared in the fall than they otherwise would have been.
King noted a nationwide dropoff in the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. If high schoolers don’t complete it, they won’t have access to key financial aid that makes college possible for many students.
King said he’s also worried that if students do go to college in the fall, they’ll have learning gaps that funnel them into remedial classes. That’s an issue because remedial college classes cost students money but don’t earn them credit toward graduation.
High schools should reach out to every senior now to talk about their future plans, King said — something counselors in Colorado are finding creative ways to do.
The coronavirus crisis has made clear that schools are not just places where students go to learn. Schools also provide food, safety, and health care for many children.
About 40,000 Denver students eat meals at school every day, Cordova said. One of the district’s first priorities after shuttering its buildings was to make sure students would still get fed. Now, four weeks later, she said the district is serving more than 12,000 meals a day. But Cordova worries about whether the children who aren’t picking up meals are getting enough to eat.
In Roaring Fork, every student got a phone call or an email from a teacher, and every family was contacted by a school administrator or mental health worker to ask what they needed, Stein said. What they heard were concerns about housing, health care, and food.
The district is handing out 1,000 food sacks a day, containing both breakfast and lunch, Stein said, meaning about one in six students are now depending on the district for meals.
The need for student mental health services ballooned after the Great Recession, when the financial downturn a decade ago caused nonprofit community providers to close their doors, Cordova said. She predicted the same thing will happen again, causing “a resurgence” of unmet mental health needs among students and families that schools will have to scramble to meet.
If districts were barely able to keep up with students’ mental health needs before coronavirus, Cordova said she fears that afterward, “it’s going to be that much more extreme.”
Murphy, of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, agreed. Adding to the problem for rural districts is that many of them face a shortage of mental health providers — an issue that could be made worse if state education funding tightens and school district budgets are cut.
Coronavirus has forced educators to reimagine what school looks like — and everyone on the panel said that could be a groundbreakingly good thing.
“I think it’s going to be really challenging to go back to a system that ties kids down to a classroom, to a seat, with the same-old, same-old we had in the past,” Cordova said.
Students are discovering new ways to learn. Teachers are inventing new ways to deliver lessons and assess whether students understood them. Many students who never before had computers or internet access have now been provided them — and Cordova said the Denver district has no plans at the moment to collect that technology before summer.
Murphy highlighted another positive: the way many communities have rallied around their children to ensure they’re fed, healthy, and learning.
“We’re seeing communities come together in ways that can only benefit students and families,” she said.