“Class, class!” second-grade teacher Allison George called out.
“Yes, yes!” quickly responded 18 small children in new outfits, neatly plaited braids, and fresh haircuts.
“I love that you did that,” George said. “You stopped what you were doing and looked up at me, because you knew something important was happening.”
That something important was the first day of school at Deane Elementary in Jeffco Public Schools, the first day of a year that teachers, students, and parents hope will finally be something resembling normal.
That something important was setting classroom norms and expectations for students who spent their first two years of elementary school living through historic disruptions inside the classroom and out.
In less than 30 seconds, George, a 16-year veteran of the classroom, got her students to leave behind their new school supplies and sit on their reading rug spots. As she counted down silently with her fingers, a hush fell over the room.
Then she read a story about a pigeon who goes from nervous to excited about his first day of school. In the space of five minutes, she checked for comprehension, tied the story to the students’ own experiences, had the students practice nodding quietly to show engagement and raising their hands to speak, and worked in some vocabulary.
“At the beginning, he was so scared,” George said of the bird. “I might even say terrified. What changed his mind?”
More than 800,000 Colorado students are returning to classrooms this month. Denver Public Schools will be the last to return on Monday. Like the pigeon, teachers, school leaders, and parents described a mix of optimism and apprehension.
Many educators felt they ended last school year on a positive note, securing a few months of mostly consistent in-person learning, able to make progress academically and mark end-of-year milestones. They’re eager to build on that growth.
They also remember thinking that last year would mark a comeback, only to struggle through quarantines, widespread staffing shortages, and highly politicized debates about COVID protocols.
“We really feel like we have a chance to have a school year without interruption,” said Bret Miles, head of the Colorado Association of School Executives. At a gathering of superintendents before the start of the school year, he said, “I heard a lot of conversations about plans that districts have had on the shelf for two years, with constant interruptions and COVID, that we’re looking forward to implementing, things that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Those include more hands-on learning, apprenticeships, and internships that send students out into the community, and new math and reading curricula that call for more teacher collaboration. Miles said school leaders are looking forward to having more consistent data on student learning and more capacity to act on it. They hope more teachers will get their planning periods back, interventionists will be able to meet with small groups rather than covering for colleagues, and administrators who coordinate improvement efforts won’t have to substitute teach so often.
Staffing challenges remain, particularly for bus drivers and special education teachers and classroom aides. But many districts report having a deeper pool of substitutes after raising pay and feel better prepared to weather illness and other absences.
Deane Principal Megan Martinez said she feels fortunate to have a teacher in every classroom after four teachers took leave at the end of last year. But like leaders at 20 other Jeffco schools, she’s still trying to hire a social worker to round out her mental health team.
Teachers say they’re far more attuned to students’ emotional needs than before. Deane reading interventionist Chelsey Boswell greets students by name at the front door each morning so she can see their demeanor. Before starting a small group session on reading or math skills, she has each student check in using a color chart. Blue is bored, sad, or tired. Green is happy, focused, or calm. Yellow might be silly or worried — something distracting the student from learning.
“They experienced something that no other generation has,” Boswell said of her students. Balancing academic and emotional needs could be a challenge, but she quickly realized the two go hand in hand. “Having these feelings and overcoming obstacles is just a way of life.”
At Deane, a handful of parents and staff members wore masks, but most children and adults had bare faces. Martinez said she never thought she’d need to know so much about health to be a principal, and she’s looking forward to focusing more on learning instead of COVID protocols.
This year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is asking schools to keep an eye on COVID cases and inform parents of infection clusters. Those who test positive should stay home. Those are about the only COVID countermeasures for now. It remains to be seen how the next iteration of COVID will behave in schools with few mitigation measures, but the state’s near-term forecast sees cases continuing to decline because so many people have some immunity now.
Colorado school districts followed a range of protocols last year that reflected both community preference and political pressures. Amie Baca-Oelhert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, said just like the rest of society, some teachers still see masks as a way to keep themselves and the community safe, while others feel ready to move on. Some teachers said they still worry about COVID but won’t miss having to police students.
Other losses hang over the start of the school year. The Deane T-shirts worn by staff members feature a rocking husky in shades. A small heart on the shoulder represents a reading interventionist who died last year. A small bee icon on the back represents a former fourth grade teacher and her daughter killed in flash flooding in the mountains over the summer. Martinez spent some quiet time in a community circle with the teacher’s former students Tuesday morning.
Martinez said her roughly 280 students have been through a lot. They come from families that experienced economic hardships and the deaths and illnesses of family members. During times of remote learning, many students didn’t have good internet access or have parents who could stay home and monitor their learning. They missed out on school meals.
Martinez said she’s grateful to have students back in the building and ready to get to work.
“We have 175 days with students, and none of those days can be wasted,” she said.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.