A relentless school year for educators, students and parents
In a pandemic, the learning curve was exponential for everyone
Melisa Rewold-Thuon, assistant superintendent for Eagle County Schools, remembers spending her birthday at the emergency school board meeting. “It’s a birthday I will always remember,” she said of March 13, 2020.
That Friday evening the district made an unprecedented announcement. It would close 17 schools and switch to remote learning for three weeks starting Tuesday, just three days later.
The news that kids would be learning from home because of the rapidly-evolving pandemic, exactly one week after Eagle County’s first confirmed coronavirus infection, reverberated throughout the county’s households and businesses.
“I was hoping for the best, but also worrying, what if we have a huge outbreak?” Rewold-Thuon said of the uncertain weeks leading up to the district’s announcement, when the shadow of the pandemic spread and darkened, but had not yet upended life. “I do remember thinking, ‘This is not going to be good, I have a feeling,’” Rewold-Thuon said.
The announcement set off a whirlwind for the district, for its bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, teachers, principals and administrators, and for roughly 6,500 students and their parents. Rewold-Thuon’s three kids would be among those now learning from home.
The district took just three days to transition its longstanding model of classroom-based instruction to the virtual world. Later in the following week, Gov. Jared Polis would order all schools in the state to close as the virus continued to spread to an extent not fully known because of lagging testing capacity.
‘The learning curve was exponential’
“Organized chaos.” That’s how Kim Biniecki, an eighth grade math teacher at Homestake Peak School and a mother of two students in the district, remembers that weekend.
Teachers rapidly trained on technologies and online platforms that fortunately had already started to be put in place in years prior, at least in some capacity. The district worked to ensure students and teachers could interact through their computers, share materials, work through glitches, and keep everyone from kindergartners to seniors engaged and learning and safe.
“The district turned on a dime. Teachers just completely flipped their instruction and how they do things,” Biniecki said. “I think everyone was in shock. For most of us, me included, because I was not tech savvy, the learning curve was exponential.”
The district attempted to put a device in the hands of every student who needed one. Hot spots were handed out and set up. Property managers and companies helped provide internet to people who couldn’t afford it. Teachers reached out to students and to their parents, who were facing widely varying circumstances, asking how they could help.
“Every day was fixing something that wasn’t working right, or tweaking what the plan was, but also trying to maintain consistency so kids knew what was going on,” Biniecki said.
Keeping students fed was another pressing matter. Job losses were mounting and store shelves were often picked bare. The district set up sites for people to pick up lunches for students. Hotels, restaurants and other partners contributed food, trailers and tents. Staff and volunteers handed out meals, and delivered them to families who could not get to the sites.
“We just figured it out,” said Chris Delsordo, the nutrition services director for the district. “Everyone came together. We had a lot of people helping us get food to the community. It feels like we just took it and ran with it. You really felt part of a team. You weren’t on an island.”
A relentless year
After the hectic three-day weekend, a strange new world of public K-12 education without schools or classrooms was up and running.
“We went into hyper-drive as an organization,” said Dan Dougherty, spokesman for Eagle County Schools. “That was a busy and challenging weekend. But it was just the beginning of a relentless year. It was a sign of things to come.”
In all the uncertainty characteristic of the pandemic, remote learning would last for three weeks, then for six weeks, and finally for the rest of the school year. Joseph Marino said the reality hit him and his fourth-grade students at Eagle Valley Elementary School hardest when an annual class camping trip got canceled that April.
With the shift to remote learning, Marino questioned if he could be effective from the other side of a computer screen. But he worked to engage his 10-year-old distance learners as much as he could — even going back into the closed school to get classroom props to use from home. In a sign of the times, he wore two face masks, a face shield and gloves as he ventured in to retrieve the items.
One small but significant benefit: The switch to remote learning happened near the school year’s end, after students and teachers had gotten to know each other.
“We broke out the moose puppet, we did virtual interviews, we were were making videos together to share with other students, we had birthday celebrations, we sang songs. We still laughed,” Marino said. “It was amazing. You sensed the kids understood the limitations that Mr. Marino was working under, and it was amazing how they went along with it.”
The class even had a virtual campout. “We invited them to set up tents in their backyards, bring their computer or phone into the tent, and we all got together and had a virtual camping trip,” Marino said. “Come 8 p.m. sharp, we all howled at the moon together as a class. We tried to make lemons into lemonade.”
Getting back in classrooms
Sports, clubs and activities were on hold. Proms were canceled and graduations went virtual or were reimagined as social distancing measures and restrictions on gatherings took hold and remained in effect. Some students had a snow-day sort of feeling as schools initially closed.
“But over the next couple weeks that became pretty brutal. They missed routines, each other, their social interactions,” said David Cope, a social studies teacher and coach at Battle Mountain High School. “We could teach them who Andrew Jackson is online, but they missed out on everything else that makes school, school. Poor kids didn’t get a senior year. That’s never really happened to anybody before.”
High schools and middle schools got creative, holding graduation ceremonies and celebrations virtually. Diplomas were handed out to students in drive-through processions. “All the teachers were out there, set up with lawn chairs like a little tailgate party. It was good to see the kids, bid them farewell, wish them luck,” Cope said. “It was bizarre, but in a way it was really nice.”
Summer brought more challenges as the pandemic wore on with its ever-fluctuating infection rates and forecasts. What consistently grew was the realization that remote learning was far from ideal, and that the economy would struggle to recover as long as kids were stuck learning from home.
“The school schedule is the foundation of the economy, what allows parents to go out and work,” Dougherty said. “It became really clear and obvious, beyond all the educational, social and emotional benefits of school for students, that the economic impact of having schools open is paramount.”
After running through what seemed like millions of scenarios, the district didn’t know it would be able to reopen its classrooms until August. The year’s start was delayed by a week to iron out logistics and continue to train teachers to operate in a new “hybrid model” with both in-person and remote instruction.
“We were prepared to go either way,” Superintendent Philip Qualman said. “It was like standing at the top of a ski run. We saw different lines, but didn’t know which one we were going to take until the last minute — if we are going to have to huck a cliff or get a nice groomer.”
Under the model, elementary and middle school students split into cohorts for class four days a week, with remote learning Wednesdays so teachers have a day for planning. High schools also split into groups to attend class two days a week, with remote learning the other days.
Some students, however, have continued to attend school remotely. That means many teachers must balance the needs of kids in class and other kids on computers.
For Marino, who is teaching kindergarten this year, that means moving the laptops with the one to two remote students around the classroom, keeping them engaged and involved, learning, and interacting with other students.
Teachers, students and families must also be ready to shift back to remote learning on short notice as quarantines are required because of exposures or infections — something the district has tracked daily on its website through a COVID dashboard.
“To me, the word ‘hybrid’ doesn’t even begin to explain the kind of flexibility required for teachers and students and families,” said Mary Ann Stavney, the learning and instruction specialist for Eagle County Schools. “I remember 10 years ago, 20 years ago, people saying that teaching is really challenging. Really, it was kind of easy compared to this.”
No one knew if the model would be able to last for two weeks or two months before everyone was sent home again. Infection and quarantine levels increased over the winter holidays and again before the February break, but the schools have managed to remain open.
It’s all taken a toll on staff, parents, students and learning. The district missed academic achievement goals in its elementary schools during remote learning, but mid-year measures are showing a rebound, district officials said. High schools have seen significantly more failing grades, and the district plans a wide variety of engagement and credit recovery programs.
People are also still struggling with job losses, financial hardships, stress and mental health challenges, and all the impacts those can have on families and students.
But around her birthday this year — a weekend without an emergency school board meeting — as more and more school staff and community residents are being vaccinated against the coronavirus, and as students remain in class, Rewold-Thuon said she’s seeing more light and hope on the horizon.
Yet as ever with the pandemic, uncertainty remains. There are still a couple months left this school year for students, teachers and families to manage and work through. School principals are still contact tracing COVID cases and sending out quarantine notices. There are also unanswered questions about what happens with prom and graduation this year — the district is looking at ways to hold them, but nothing has been finalized yet — and whether students will have to keep wearing masks in class next year.
But one exhausting year later, a marathon pandemic that could have ripped the school district and the community apart at the seams has instead left them positioned to emerge from a difficult and wearying year — albeit one with many bright spots and triumphs to celebrate — with the momentum to move forward together.
Eagle County’s public schools over the past year are a tale of the entire community experiencing and overcoming hardship together, Dougherty said. “Our folks really laid it on the line to do the best possible for the most possible. Not trying to say it was all roses and rainbows, to the contrary, every day has been difficult and continues to be hard, but boy have there been bright moments in all this sacrifice.”
Continued togetherness and partnership, evidenced during a time known for social distancing and its isolating impacts, is the only thing that has allowed Eagle County’s schools to reopen and stay open, with unprecedented collaboration between public health, district leaders, parents, students, principals and teachers, Qualman said. “There’s no way that any one of those groups could have been successful if we were not all working together through this.”
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.