Teachers press on amid challenges of remote learning

Closure of schools for the year heartbreaking, educators say

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In the days leading up to the Douglas County School District's spring break, murmurs began spreading among teachers that students might not return to school once the break ended because of COVID-19.

Temporary school closures ultimately ensued, followed by extensions of those shutdowns, and finally, the announcement on April 3 that the district will remain closed to in-person learning the remainder of the school year.

Students, who could be enrolled in anywhere from five to seven classes depending on grade level, will finish the year learning remotely from home.

The dramatic shift in the delivery of education shocked the teaching community, Douglas County teachers told Colorado Community Media. None could say they have seen a crisis impact the education system the way COVID-19 has.

Teachers are now striving to perform a delicate balancing act between keeping learning meaningful and not overwhelming students, they said.

“I think people that get into teaching, they're just kind of built for experiences like this. We're trying to be as student-centered as we always are,” said Niki Brock, an English teacher at Mesa Middle School in Castle Rock, one day before the announcement that schools will stay closed in the 2019-20 school year.

Once the announcement came out, Brock felt heartbroken but also prouder than ever to work in education.

“We will get through this together as a community, and educators will continue to rise up to the challenge of taking care of our students,” she said later by email.

Sam Kurucz, a social studies teacher at Highlands Ranch High School, said news of school closures at first left teachers incredulous and frantically debating what it would mean for their students.

Kurucz expected many children would adapt well to remote education, and he felt most students could handle using technology. But it would not be easy for all students, he said, and that worried him.

“I know plenty of kids that are going to struggle,” he said. “Especially to self-motivate themselves to learn.”

He's adjusted how he tests and quizzes students as they miss out on a normal school environment, because he does not “feel comfortable assessing them to the same degree I would when we were meeting in-person,” he said.

Emotional ups and downs

Colleen Meyer, a sixth-grade teacher at Saddle Ranch Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, sorted through mixed emotions after learning schools will stay closed. She's grateful for her health, but each day is filled with highs and lows, she said.

“I'm excited about some of the new teaching techniques that I have learned,” she said. “And there are moments where I just need to shut my laptop and walk away for a few minutes.”

Teachers said that the sheer number of emails they now receive can be daunting. They try to use class websites to provide students all the information they need for assignments. They hold Google Hangouts and Zoom calls to stay connected. They post prerecorded videos with instructions for classwork or answers to questions.

“It's just been unbelievable to see the creativity in our teaching staff, their patience in terms of working with students and trying to make sure they are making those face-to-face interactions with them,” said school board President David Ray in late March.

Meyer never foresaw herself incorporating “as much differentiation” into her teaching as she is now. Remote learning requires teachers to meet every student at their individual skill level more than ever, she said.

She allowed her students to pick one of three paths moving forward: the first was remedial skill building, the second was continuing with the learning they began in August and reinforcing those skills, and the third was the most challenging — attempting their first research paper.

Meyer wanted to let students choose the pace for which they felt best prepared while learning remotely.

“It's not right for every student to be learning new skills remotely,” she said.

Jenna Butler is in her fifth year teaching with the Douglas County School District. The science teacher at Legend High School in Parker can relate to what her students are experiencing — she's also a student pursuing her graduate degree online.

She tries to make lessons as fun as she can by making morning videos about their assignments with a comical twist, like a goofy outfit or song. She knew it was possible school could close for the remainder of the year, but she misses her students.

“We had hope we would get to see our students at least one more time this year,” she said.

Brock was grateful that teachers had Friday, March 13 to organize and prepare students for remote learning. Her principal worked on getting computers to students in need of them. Teachers told students how they would communicate with the class moving forward.

“I would say it went from shock to concern to pretty quickly then, action,” Brock said.

For Brock, challenges included ensuring she had a way to contact every student after moving online. She also thought about how to account for every student's home life and remain mindful of students with fewer support systems.

She's still waiting to see how remote learning and the pandemic will change education, but she believes teachers are up for the challenge.

“I think if there's anybody that is capable of shifting on the fly, of working in a crisis moment, of multi-tasking, of learning new material quickly, it has to be teachers who do it best,” Meyer said. “I think that's what we've always done. We're learners. We learn constantly.”

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