The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education across Colorado and the rest of the nation in 2020, forcing schools and families to figure out how to facilitate learning and critical support services outside the confines of schoolhouses and college campuses.
The abrupt upending of traditional schooling in the hopes of stopping the spread of the highly contagious respiratory virus produced a number of problems for educators, learners and parents from preschool through college. But it also strong-armed rapid change.
Did the need to respond to the crisis in real time create lasting innovations that might stick around post-pandemic? Colorado education experts hope so.
“There is no going back to exactly the way it was before,” said Elizabeth Hinde, professor and dean of the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Kids and teachers aren’t going to just forget what they’ve been through this past year. We will build it into who we are now.”
Both higher education and K-12 school budgets were slashed amid coronavirus-induced state cuts, so Colorado educators will need to prioritize what’s most important moving forward amid rocky financial footing.
Remote learning here to stay?
Technology will almost certainly play a larger role in how students learn, whether it’s a supplemental tool in the classroom or an essential piece of a blended learning format.
In a recent survey by the RAND Corporation, about two in 10 U.S. school districts already had adopted, plan to adopt or are considering adopting virtual education after the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual schooling also was listed as the innovative practice most district leaders anticipated would continue because of demand from both students and parents.
Vernon Jones Jr., executive director of Denver Public Schools’ Northeast Innovation Zone, hopes K-12 students will have continued access to online learning, much like college students have. The challenges will be ensuring Colorado has reliable WiFi throughout the state and that virtual curriculums are as robust as in-person ones. Because students and teachers alike can connect from home, that likely will also spell the end of snow days, he said.
As for higher education, university leaders don’t predict a total transition to online-only courses post-pandemic.
“Our student population really wants a residential college experience,” said Phil DiStefano, University of Colorado Boulder chancellor, who noted that applications for the fall semester already are significantly higher than they were during the same period this year.
However, DiStefano and other higher education leaders predict the increase in online learning will continue to provide more flexibility for students.
“There can be a compromise between a fully online model and an on-campus, always live model,” said Joyce McConnell, Colorado State University president. “Some information can be delivered very well remotely, so that it frees up opportunities to do more experiential learning. Now we know there are other delivery models, and we can shift based on pedagogy and make it much more student-centric.”
The same is true in the K-12 sector, said Katy Anthes, Colorado commissioner of education. The hybrid model, for example, was adopted by many districts during the pandemic to reduce the number of students in school buildings at a time. But the format, which dictates kids spend part of the week physically in class and supplement that with remote learning, proved beneficial for some and could pave the way for more customized approaches to learning, Anthes said.
Students aren’t cookie-cutter, so why should their education be?
“We’ve shown we can do it on a larger scale now,” Anthes said. “I hope we can pivot off of that and think about more personalized learning approaches for students and families.”
Madeleine St. Marie, a middle school social studies teacher at West Early College in Denver, has seen the benefits of asynchronous learning firsthand. One of her students, who was also taking care of a younger sibling, struggled with remote instruction in the spring. By fall, however, the student had figured out how to schedule classwork around her family obligations and is now excelling.
“All the sudden she’s an independent learner and she’s taken charge of her education in a new way that wasn’t possible under the old regime,” St. Marie said.
Other students have benefitted from having recorded lessons to refer back to when they are completing assignments, instead of relying on a one-time lecture.
“They’ve really been able to access their education at times that aren’t traditional,” she said. “Accessibility of education is something that should stay.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on most aspects of Colorado life, from people’s physical and mental health to job and housing security. The crisis has stressed to education leaders that student support services are more important than ever.
“We realized we can help with these needs and not only that we can, but we should,” said Landon Pirius, vice president for academic and student affairs at the Colorado Community College System.
Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said gone are the days when colleges and universities prioritize “building pretty buildings” when students can’t put food on the table or don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night.
DiStefano said CU Boulder recently invested nearly $1.8 million toward hiring additional counselors for students, with a concerted effort to help students of color and first-generation students whose college enrollment across the state has dropped since the start of the pandemic.
School also isn’t just about academics.
Students learn how to interact with their peers and develop social-emotional skills, such as empathy and resilience, that prepare them for adulthood. Those aspects of school have unquestionably suffered as buildings have remained closed and children and young adults have been sequestered from their friends.
The pandemic has underscored the importance of integrating social-emotional learning into daily lessons, Hinde said. One way Metro State’s teacher prep program does that is by training educators to use trauma-informed practices, which help teachers identify and acknowledge external circumstances that may be affecting a student’s ability to learn so they can be addressed in real time.
“There’s a direct relationship between adverse childhood experiences, which can be defined as trauma, and (a child’s) success in school and in life,” Hinde said. “So there’s a mindset shift when you have a child who is misbehaving or not learning. Instead of the thought of, ‘What’s wrong with you?,’ the teacher shifts to, ‘What’s happened to you?’ When you have that lens, it changes the way a teacher is able to respond to the child and able understand where their needs are. ”
It’s imperative to allow kids the mental space to deal with what’s going on in their lives aside from school, said educator St. Marie. Students are more stressed this year, which is why she is lecturing less and empowering them to do more independent exploration. She also tailored the content she’s teaching this semester to students’ interests in hopes it will keep them more engaged in a virtual setting.
“My seventh graders love to argue, so I had them look at the conspiracy theories about the pyramids and ancient aliens,” St. Marie said. “They say this doesn’t even feel like work. And I say, ‘But you’re learning how to reason, how to argue, you’re explaining why this is a bad source.’”
Flexing their flexibility
The flexibility happening in K-12 and higher education amid COVID-19 is something that’s been missing — or at least perceived to be missing — from the education landscape for quite some time, experts said.
“The way other people have perceived us, or how we perceived ourselves, as not being adaptive was wrong,” CSU’s McConnell said. “Higher education responded really well and delivered a very high level of education without a lot of experience in how to do it, and quickly. We know now we can be very nimble and adaptive in a short amount of time.”
Some experts hope education’s newfound nimbleness will parlay into more radical changes. Author and film producer Ted Dintersmith has spent years chronicling the rise of new schooling styles that prioritize real world skills over testing proficiencies. His 2018 documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” argues the old model of education developed in the 1800s should be reimagined entirely because it’s ill-equipped for modern society.
“I think that’s why, despite having some good ideas, Common Core fell so short,” Dintersmith said, referring to the uniform set of educational standards states began adopting in 2010. “Instead of preparing you for what the real world needs, we’ll prepare you for the next level of education. Elementary schools prepare you for middle school, prepare you for high school, prepare you for college, prepare you for a master’s degree, prepare you for a Ph.D. And then at the end of that there are like five positions in colleges across America today for Ph.Ds.”
Paccione hopes the pandemic inspires transformative change in higher education, particularly in providing those who have fallen on hard times with quicker, more affordable skills-based training and career certificates.
“You can’t tell somebody who just lost their job in the food industry to come spend $60,000 in four years and get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy,” Paccione said. “We have to be nimble, agile and be responsive to the student need right now.”
What lies ahead?
That approach could help make up for dips in higher education enrollment. Paccione said preliminary enrollment numbers show declines in first-generation college students, low-income students and students of color.
CSU’s McConnell said she is concerned about the widening equity gaps this will create, as she predicted the economic impact of the pandemic will take years from which to recover.
Incremental changes in education can have a big impact, Dintermsith said. He’s a big believer in empowering teachers to think outside the box when it comes to instruction and giving kids the opportunities to ask great questions. Widespread change, however, requires putting less value on accountability measures, such grades and test scores, and rethinking the college application process, he said.
St. Marie is all for these changes. A self-proclaimed hater of grades, she said the pandemic has allowed education to be a more compassionate experience and enabled teachers to focus on the process of learning instead of the product, i.e. passing a test. She hopes that emphasis on skill acquisition versus content will stick around.
“When we focus so much on the test, we’re teaching to the test. That goes against everything I find amazing about education and learning,” St. Marie said. “It’s much more important to me that our students feel confident and have critical thinking skills than they know who Julius Caesar was or when Rome fell.”
Jones with Denver Public Schools is also a proponent of dramatic changes, specifically to the academic calendar. He suggested 12 months of strategic learning that focuses on the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic, but also personal enrichment through apprenticeships, internships and other opportunities outside the classroom.
What better time to rethink the educational experience than when so many operational and accessibility issues need to be addressed?
“We can’t go back to what was, because what was has been exposed by COVID as to exasperating the inequities. It wasn’t eliminating them, it was hiding them to some degree,” Jones said. “We are hopefully forever changed.”