Structured days, live instruction, and more social opportunities. Those are some of the changes Jeffco’s school district is planning to improve in next year’s remote learning.
Officials in the Jeffco school district, one of the first Colorado districts to jump into remote learning after schools shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, say they’ve learned lessons that are helping to shape future remote learning.
Though district officials acknowledge that virtual learning has not been optimal for most students, they also say they know that next fall, some students and families will still be choosing to stay home, either for medical reasons or because they’ve inadvertently found a way of learning that works better for them.
“We realize the remote learning experience is not the same for all of our students and teachers,” said Matt Walsh, community superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools. “We’re going to take all of our best learnings so that any student, any family, from any area, can have the exact same high-quality experience.”
While some Colorado school districts are similarly planning new remote learning options for next school year, others are pointing students to previously existing online learning programs, which are sometimes for limited grade levels and with little live instruction.
Many district leaders are eager to get students back to classrooms to make up learning that has lagged this school year. But in a state that allows families to choose schools across districts, those that don’t offer online programs could risk losing students to other districts that do.
Walsh is leading the planning for next year’s remote learning program in Jeffco. It will be different in several ways. Instead of each school running its own remote program, the district will run one central virtual program. Unlike Jeffco’s existing online school, the Jeffco Virtual Academy, students in next school year’s remote program will be connected to their neighborhood schools where they’ll still have a seat waiting for them in 2022-23 if they choose to return.
Students will be able to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities with their school, and families will receive all of the same communications that students in the building get.
And unlike the current school year, the district will not place teachers on double duty, simultaneously teaching students sitting in their classroom and those logging on from home. Instead, teachers will teach one group or the other.
Having a teacher divide attention between students at home and in the classroom “inherently compromised” both teaching and learning, Walsh said. “We wanted to eliminate that.”
In the spring, about 20,000 students, or one-quarter of Jeffco’s total students, chose to stay with remote learning, even as the district began to increase in-person instruction.
In a survey earlier this semester, about 1,300 Jeffco families said they would be interested in remote learning next fall, too.
Claudia Banuelos is the mom of a high school senior this year who is learning remotely.
Her husband recently went through chemotherapy and a high-risk surgery. Banuelos said her son, while disappointed, decided to go back to remote learning after the district switched to full-time in-person classes.
“We are trying to protect our environment,” Banuelos said.
Walsh said that having families like the Banueloses with health conditions that put them at high risk means that the district will have to help students making various learning choices.
Besides looking at ways to safely bring students back into classrooms, Walsh said the district is trying to improve remote learning by being proactive in helping students before they’re struggling.
Internally, the district is adapting curriculum and technology to offer more remote classes, including advanced placement and honors courses in high school.
Jeffco is planning to hire teachers who have enjoyed and found ways to succeed while teaching remotely. The remote learning program also will have counselors, learning specialists, social and emotional learning specialists, and a community liaison. The district will train staff over the summer in best practices they’ve developed for teaching online.
Some of that will include ways to balance giving students structure and live instruction while allowing for off-screen time.
Walsh said that working that out for younger children is particularly tricky.
“Teaching students to read and to write, that requires a high degree of interaction that really relies on a synchronous environment,” Walsh said.
Synchronous, which refers to live interactions, will be the key of Jeffco’s remote learning program.
Younger students may appear to be on a video call all day. But their activities will vary. While logged into class, they may have a 30-minute block of instruction, and then, while still on camera, they may be instructed to do 15 minutes of independent reading or work, just as they might in a classroom. Teachers will also develop ways to call students back to the screen.
“That’s one of the big pieces, having the students’ faces in the room,” Walsh said.
Jeffco also is looking at how to create optional virtual lunchrooms to offer students more social interaction.
The goal, Walsh said, will be to help students make just as many, if not more, gains as they would if they were in person.
“We’re teaching kids to be amazing,” Walsh said.