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A high school freshman outside of Fort Collins logs on for class this past winter. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

It’s Been One Year Since Students Started Widespread Distance Learning

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged across Colorado, hundreds of thousands of the state’s schoolchildren were stuck at home, learning in basements and at kitchen tables. What does this past year mean for their futures—and for the future of education in the Centennial State?

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One day this past winter, a Denver Public Schools (DPS) fifth grader phoned a therapist who was helping her cope with her anxiety. She missed her friends and needed to talk. A single mom a few miles south in Littleton called her teenage sons from work one weekday, just to make sure they were doing OK with everything. In northeastern Colorado, a mother couldn’t get through the day without worrying about her four children, one of whom was in middle school and recently had asked the family’s Alexa device for advice on how to put an end to his suicidal thoughts.

The particular struggles for parents and children over the past year may be different, but they’re also awfully familiar and have the same root cause: pandemic-induced remote learning.

Jada Williams* knows the challenges. She’d seen her daughter’s slow academic slide begin late this past summer, just weeks into a school year that had started with students at home because of the novel coronavirus. After months of remote learning, DPS gave her 10-year-old daughter, Nia,* the option of in-person learning at east Denver’s Montclair School of Academics and Enrichment this past winter. Williams declined.

It was “the hardest decision of my life,” Williams, who is in her late thirties and Black, says. She knew how important it was for Nia to be in a classroom, but she also knew the risks associated with COVID-19, which has hit Black communities at disproportionately high rates. Williams worked two jobs, and she didn’t have the luxury of missing a paycheck if she got sick. Ultimately, sending Nia back to in-person schooling “wasn’t worth the risk” to her family’s health or their financial situation.

Williams watched her daughter’s reading aptitude slip each night as the two read before bedtime. Nia was a hands-on kid, so it was inevitable she’d eventually become lonely and disengaged from her schoolwork. Williams always believed her daughter’s situation would be temporary, but a sense of helplessness seized her as the pandemic dragged on through the summer and into the fall and winter. “I never imagined,” she says, “that this is what school would look like.”

Williams, who also has a three-year-old son, didn’t have any cushion in her budget to hire a tutor for her daughter. Nia cried when she learned of her mother’s decision to keep her home, where she would log in to school each morning as her mother took calls for her day job as an eye-examination scheduler for a managed care company. “How do you tell a child you’re keeping her from her teacher and her friends?” says Williams, who also cuts hair to supplement her income. “I want her to go back so bad. I don’t have a good answer for anything. She keeps asking me when she’s finally going to see her teachers and her friends. I keep saying, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ How much longer can I do that?”

Nearly 100 miles north of the Williams’ home, 14-year-old Brett Shaw* sat hunched over a laptop at his kitchen table, trying to ignore his mother. His first-semester final exams were to begin the next day. Snow was piled around his family’s rustic, split-level home in the hills west of Fort Collins. It was mid-December, but indoors it looked much the same as it had every other day during the pandemic, with Brett wearing a pair of shorts, sitting next to his two younger sisters as they logged into their classes.

Brett—wiry and friendly, with a thin face and a wisp of black hair peeking out from under the back of his Dallas Cowboys beanie—had earned mostly B’s and C’s in middle school the year before. As with so many American children since then, the pandemic had upended most everything in Brett’s life. Both of his parents had temporarily lost their jobs during the previous nine months, which had been devastating to the family’s finances. Brett rarely saw his friends. He loved competitive wrestling, but he hadn’t worked out with his team in months. Of the roughly 80 days that made up Brett’s first semester, only 10 had been in an actual classroom. “I barely got to know my way around,” he said as he logged onto his English class, where the students were studying Romeo and Juliet. With one week remaining in his first freshman semester, Brett was in a bad spot academically. He had three D’s, one F, a bunch of unfinished work, and a frustrated mother trying to hold things together.

Over in the family room, Brett’s mom, Kelly Shaw,* sat at her desk. Her job as a medical coder for a hospital gave her flexibility to work from home when her husband returned to his full-time job in construction. Like most parents working through the pandemic, Kelly, who is 41, was fighting doubts about herself. One day, she’d worry she was neglecting her work and focusing too much on her children’s schooling; the next, she was certain she was ignoring her children’s schooling and focusing too much on her work. She thought about bills that would soon come due and was often angry that her school district hadn’t opened its high schools. “I feel like I’m the one who’s failing,” she said.

Kelly opened Brett’s school portal, which gave her access to attendance records, grades, and assignments. She took a deep breath. Her back stiffened. It was as if she were preparing for a crash landing.

“I feel like I’m the one who’s failing,” says one Colorado mother, voicing the stresses and concerns of so many parents as their children have navigated virtual learning. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

Colorado’s Department of Education doesn’t keep specific statistics on remote learning, but it’s estimated that 900,000 kindergarten through high school students across the state have spent at least some time in virtual classes this school year. From Fort Collins to Trinidad, from Sterling to Grand Junction—and throughout the Denver metro area—families’ kitchens, home offices, basements, and bedrooms have become makeshift classrooms. Parents not only had to be parents, but also English and chemistry teachers, school-lunch cooks, and IT specialists. Since strict social-distancing policies were put in place a year ago, and with millions sickened and (at press time) more than 440,000 dead in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of Colorado’s children are still stuck at home, trying to learn through laptops or tablets or smartphones.

“Our children have been hurt in many ways,” says Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a medical doctor and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where he studies child stress, trauma, and resilience. “School has been among the most significant pressure points.”

During a moment in history when many Americans can’t even seem to agree on basic facts, one thing is clear: Parents collectively haven’t worried so much about their kids’ educations in a generation, and it’s doubtful they’ve ever felt so underprepared to help them. “I’m doing the best I can, but it never seems like it’s enough,” says one mother whose sons attend high school in Arapahoe County. Says an elementary school mother in Douglas County: “I’m sad and upset, and every day is terrible. The worst part is I don’t know who to be angry at.” There’s a shared pain among parents as they attempt to survive the pandemic amid the daily struggle of negotiating virtual schooling and the corollary effects that isolation has on mental health.

In schools from California to Colorado to New York, there’s been a strong push to safely return children to their classrooms; President Joe Biden, in December, stated his goal was “that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.” Citing evidence that coronavirus transmission is low among kids, and facing pressure from parents who’ve shared their worries and anger in protests and online, Colorado administrators have begun reopening their schools’ doors, to mixed results. While many of the state’s public school students began in-person classes in January, the return to school was fraught with complications. The Denver Post reported that 12 schools had almost immediate COVID-19 outbreaks when in-person learning began. By this spring, most every student in the state could have an option to return to in-person learning, even at the high school level. It’s an ambitious plan with myriad potential pitfalls, including teachers unions’ opposition (given ongoing health concerns) and stumbles in COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.

Until the vast majority of Colorado’s students return to school, whether temporarily or for good, it will be impossible to fully understand the academic, emotional, and social damage inflicted upon them. Research thus far on the impact of virtual education during the pandemic has been scant. “We’d love to have easy answers,” says Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, “but nothing will be easy about any of this.”

Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

In the tech-savvy Netherlands, which had an eight-week lockdown, one study showed “large learning losses” among school-age children, particularly those in less-affluent communities. The National Bureau of Economic Research, in Massachusetts, concluded the pandemic’s impact on kids’ educations would have “particularly long-lasting consequences,” especially in areas of social interaction and relations with peers. “Early evidence,” the report says, “suggests that online education…is a poor substitute.”

“Everything seems frightening and dangerous when you look into the future,” says Christy McConnell, a professor of educational foundations and curriculum studies at the University of Northern Colorado. “We already want to know how we fix things, but we don’t even know what to fix yet.”

For those who soldiered through closures, the inventory of needs among Colorado’s school districts and their students is equally disturbing. Almost overnight, school administrators and community leaders realized the severity of infrastructure and resource shortcomings: Even as districts worked overtime to improve electronic connectivity with their students, more than 30,000 children across the state this past fall didn’t have the devices or internet connections to properly begin online classes, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s Colorado School District Needs Inventory report. “Thousands and thousands of kids were basically shut out of their educations,” says Diana Cruz, the executive director for the Durango Education Foundation, in southwest Colorado, where nearly one out of five students did not have adequate online access. “That’s not the students’ fault, but it became their problem.”

According to the Colorado Department of Education, 30,024 fewer children were present for October’s student-count date, upon which the next year’s public school funding is based—roughly a three percent decline. The shortfall extended across the state, almost entirely in districts that went exclusively online, and was most prevalent in lower grades. Some experts say this could indicate that parents hit a “hard reset” on early education this year—essentially opting to delay enrollment for kindergarten-age children or to have students repeat their grade level starting next August.

Studies have shown how critical a role early childhood education plays in a student’s growth, especially in literacy. An early interest in reading is the most likely path to becoming a good learner in the future, with fourth-grade reading levels a baseline indicator for success. Nationally, children who struggle to read in first grade are 88 percent more likely to struggle with literacy in the fourth grade. And children who struggle in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. A majority of American juveniles caught in the criminal-justice system are functionally illiterate, and three out of five of the country’s adult inmates have similar deficiencies.

With sobering statistics like those, the fallout from this year might eventually become best known through its grimmest figures: dropout rates, stunted wages, and eventually even incarcerations. “We know there’s been a loss for students somewhere, and not only academically,” says Berkowitz, who works with children living through trauma. “School isn’t just a place to learn reading, writing, and math. You learn to communicate with peers. You deal with disappointments. You learn to be part of society. Students are missing those lessons, and we have no idea what the repercussions will be.”

The students suffering most through the pandemic are often the same ones who were already facing the most adversity. They’re boys and girls with intellectual or physical disabilities, kids who were already going to bed hungry, and children from underserved populations for which COVID-19 has been particularly insidious with its infection and death rates.

The pandemic has put into stark relief the inequalities within health and education in our country, gaps that had existed for centuries but threaten to become even wider the longer the pandemic drags on. It’s been well documented that Black and brown children generally score lower on standardized tests than their white peers. Dropout rates are higher. College attendance is lower. The pandemic has caused the scales to tilt even further against the country’s most vulnerable students. “What’s the future for a child who was already behind, who falls deeper and deeper into an academic hole and can’t imagine a way out?” says Jennifer Bacon, a former DPS board member who was elected as a state representative this past fall. “How can we afford to have a critical mass of our Denver kids get left behind?”

The National Bureau of Economic Research study from this past year indicated the pandemic impacts will be uneven, especially when considering family economics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children from affluent families are expected to see virtually no disruption in academic performance upon their return to the classroom, while children in underserved communities could slip several grade levels. “The haves and have-nots have never been more exposed,” says Colorado Representative Barbara McLachlan, a former teacher who chairs the state’s House Education Committee. “We’re going to be playing catch-up with children’s lives.”

Figuring out how much work is needed to close that gap will be difficult, at least on a macro level. State politicians and educators are agitating against mass testing as formerly virtual learners return to in-person classes, arguing that students’ “fragile confidence” might be further damaged. Instead, they’ve proposed ideas such as intensive one-on-one work with students, community tutoring, and improved communication with parents—all of which will take more time and effort, from all sides. “Gaps are going to expand before they shrink,” says Anthes, the education commissioner. In the meantime, the Colorado Department of Education has started distributing more than $1 billion in federal and state COVID-19-related relief funds to local education agencies, and Anthes says she’s “trusting that educators will make the best decisions for their students.” Still, she says, “It’ll be important to measure [learning loss] at some point because we’re going to need to know what we’re grappling with.”

Jada Williams knows her daughter will be one of the students who needs extra help. “I’m trying so hard to keep things together,” she says. She wonders how she will console Nia—and herself—when the first academic tests show how far her daughter has fallen. Until then, Williams maneuvers through her day with near military precision—bouncing among work, her toddler son, and Nia’s classes. After work and school, Williams reads with her kids and checks Nia’s homework. At the end of days that often begin before dawn, Williams sometimes falls asleep before 8:30 p.m. due to exhaustion.

“I do this because my kids need to know I’m here for them. I want the best for them,” she says as she bathes her son during her 30-minute lunch break. Her daughter was in another room, in class. Her son squealed in her arms. “Sometimes it feels like everything is against us, but I can’t think about that. I refuse to allow my kids to disappear.”

Up in the hills outside Fort Collins, Brett Shaw heated a Styrofoam carton of macaroni and cheese in the microwave. As he waited for his lunch to warm up, he wondered whether his school would have a wrestling season and if he had a shot at making the varsity team despite not having wrestled a match in nearly a year. He checked the clock on the stove. He had nearly 90 minutes until his next class.

“Why don’t you work on some of your missing homework?” his mother suggested and pulled out a list of his assignments. Brett opened the doors to the family room fireplace and stoked the fire. He sat in a chair next to his mother. He played with a video camera. He looked out the kitchen window. Were new neighbors moving in across the street? Could he go outside and meet them?

“No!” his mother said. “Do your work.”

Someday, there again will be high school proms, science fairs in the gym, and nighttime football games packed with students bathed under white lights. But who will be forgotten and left further behind? “What are the lessons we get out of this, and what are the lessons we forget and don’t address because we’re just so excited to move on?” Bacon says. She wonders about the lives that might have been irreparably changed during the pandemic—the social, emotional, and academic damage inflicted, to be passed to another generation of young learners. “We have structural questions that need to be addressed,” she says. “How we stand up now will define us in the future.”

Former Denver Public Schools board member and current state Representative Jennifer Bacon. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen

While companies and state and local governments have boasted about Colorado’s educated workforce, the state has consistently placed near the middle of all states when it comes to the quality of education its youngest residents receive. A recent Education Week ranking, for example, placed the state at 24th nationally in school funding, an issue that will become more crucial as educators and parents begin to understand the pandemic’s full toll.

The heaviest lifting is about to begin. Schools soon will be besieged by students who’ve struggled mightily with online classes and who suddenly need a host of support mechanisms. “We’ve given our children no time with friends, we’ve plopped them in front of a computer, told them to be quiet, and then asked them to learn algebra,” says McConnell, the University of Northern Colorado professor. “How is that supposed to create success and happiness?”

Students will act out in myriad ways. “We’re going to open up schools across the state at some point, and we’re going to have a tsunami of dysregulated children whose teachers are wholly unprepared for what they’re going to face,” says Ned Breslin, the president and CEO at Tennyson Center for Children, which serves nearly 1,300 “neglected, abused, and traumatized” children a year in districts across the state. So, too, teachers will undoubtedly have to address frustrated and angry parents, who will blame them for keeping schools closed. “Teachers and administrators are going to have to double- and triple-down on efforts to reconnect” with families, Anthes says. Restoring those connections will require “putting the time and effort in, to go one person at a time.”

She believes the coming summer could provide the key to reversing some of the academic losses inflicted during the 2020-’21 school year. Over the winter, federal emergency funding was released to help school districts that moved to online learning as a way to create environments that might diminish the negative impacts of remote classes. The Colorado Department of Education, Anthes says, also is encouraging districts with extended in-person restrictions to consider expanding learning opportunities during the summer break. Increased summer school enrollment is one possibility, as are school-backed tutoring “pods”—especially in lower-income neighborhoods—where students could learn, in-person, within a smaller environment. Over time, the state’s Department of Education could also recommend increasing the number of school days, or even expand the academic calendar.

None of it will be inexpensive, and funding in the state is uncertain. Colorado legislators this past winter already were preparing to ask the state to reinstate the $7.2 billion in 2020-’21 school funding in the 2021-’22 academic year—rather than cut money based on October’s pandemic-reduced student count. At Aurora Public Schools, where 66 percent of the district’s funding comes from the state and nearly 70 percent of its 40,000 students live in poverty, even a small reduction in funding could have catastrophic consequences. “When children start showing up again, how can a district educate its children with less money?” McLachlan, the state representative, says. Even if the funding level is maintained for 2021-’22, educators say that amount won’t come close to covering increased student needs. Districts where schools were closed to in-person learning will likely look for taxpayer-funded revenue streams to cover everything from additional academic help to mental health services and school nurses.

“This is when we find out who wants to be serious about our kids’ educations,” says the Tennyson Center’s Breslin. The center has kept its doors open during the pandemic to a maximum of 75 students, eliminating classroom changes during the day and intensifying therapy for students due to the stresses that COVID-19 has placed on that population. Breslin says Tennyson’s standardized test scores jumped 52 percent in reading comprehension and 40 percent in math proficiency, compared to students’ pre-pandemic numbers.

The school, Breslin says, could become an example for districts as they begin to navigate the post-pandemic environment. “We’ve showed what happens when you invest time and money into mental health and mix it with day-to-day education,” he says, adding that COVID-19 might actually have an unexpected benefit for education in the state. “Moving forward, the power is in our hands,” Breslin says. “Educators, parents, and voters have a chance to change the way things have always been done.”

*Names have been changed.

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