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Denver parents worry their children are learning less online, surveys indicate

A laptop displaying a video call is perched on a chair on a stage.
Denver parents expressed concerns with remote learning in a pair of surveys.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

Many Denver parents feel their children are learning less online than they would inside a classroom, and they’re worried their kids are falling behind, according to the results of two separate surveys — one of them a scientific poll — conducted by local advocacy groups.

“Learning for my son from high school has been very difficult because there are many distractions at home that would not normally affect him when he is in person,” Denver Public Schools parent Liliana Lazos reportedly told the advocacy groups. “Schools made efforts to try to contribute resources, but it was not an ideal environment for anyone.”

When COVID-19 hit in March, Denver shifted all instruction online for the remainder of the spring. This fall, elementary classrooms reopened for several weeks only to be shuttered again due to rising COVID cases in the city. Elementary schools opened again this month, and middle and high schools are gradually reopening too for the first time since March.

While Denver schools’ approach to remote learning varied wildly last spring, the district made an effort to improve and streamline online instruction this fall. District officials promised that every student would get at least three hours of live online instruction per day.

But many of the surveyed parents questioned whether that is enough. Denver Public Schools says it has a four-pronged plan for accelerating learning that includes intensive tutoring.

“My child struggled to learn his letters while we were remote all year,” said parent Nallely Antúnez, who has two children in Denver Public Schools, including a son in kindergarten. “And now that we’re back to school, he has already learned to read.”

The polling firm Keating Research conducted an online poll early this month of 647 Denver parents. The poll was done for education advocacy groups Transform Education Now, African Leadership Group, Stand for Children Colorado, and FaithBridge.

Among the findings:

  • 65% of parents said their children are learning less online compared with being in person
  • 57% said their children are getting four hours or less per day of live instruction
  • 49% said their child frequently or occasionally misses or has a hard time understanding their lessons
  • 48% said their child frequently or occasionally logs on for class but doesn’t engage or interact

However, a majority of parents said they’re satisfied with the schooling options the district has provided. Denver Public Schools is allowing parents to choose to send their children to school in person when COVID case rates allow, or remain online all year.

The percentage of parents satisfied with their options was higher among Hispanic parents (68%) and Black parents (64%) than white parents (41%). COVID-19 has hit communities of color particularly hard in Denver, and more Black and Hispanic parents have opted to keep their children in remote learning this school year than white parents.

In a statement, Denver Public Schools said it understands this year has been difficult.

“We know this has been a challenging year for many of our students, and have been working hard to address the learning loss while remaining flexible,” the statement said.

The district’s four-pronged plan to address lost learning includes focusing on providing grade-level content and timely support for students, giving extra support to students in groups of eight to 12, providing intensive one-on-one tutoring for some students, and supporting students’ social and emotional needs.

“Because we value collaboration in meeting the needs of all students, DPS will collect feedback from staff and the community in the coming weeks and months,” it said.

The district will release recommendations on how to improve in those areas and will put measures in place beginning this school year, the statement said.

Nicholas Martinez, co-founder of Transform Education Now, said parents want to know how, specifically, Denver Public Schools plans to address students’ academic gaps.

“Three hours with a teacher now versus eight hours, seven hours a day prior to that, it’s a massive difference,” he said. “Nobody is saying we have to immediately send every child back [to a school building]. There are some real health implications for everyone involved.

“But if we are in remote learning and then we go back, what are we going to do to make sure kids have the academic support they need?”

Separate from the scientific poll, Transform Education Now surveyed 650 parents on the phone and online. The survey found that 54% of parents feel their children have fallen behind academically and only 52% feel their children are prepared to advance to the next grade.

Kristin Franke is a mom of a preschooler who helped conduct the survey. She spent more than 100 hours calling more than 300 families. The conversations were often emotional, she said.

Parents talked about losing work during the pandemic and not being able to afford food or high-speed internet. One mother said her children had been marked as truant because their internet was spotty and didn’t allow them to log on. Another mom talked about driving her three boys to a Starbucks parking lot to do their schoolwork on the free Wi-Fi.

Franke said parents repeatedly said they want better communication from schools about how their children are doing academically. Now that classrooms have reopened, parents choosing to keep their children home are worried they are getting a lesser quality education than the students attending class in person, Franke said.

“Teachers are so much more focused on the [in-person] children,” Franke said parents told her. “They keep saying, ‘Hang on, kids at home. I’ll be right back.’”

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