Aspen schools learning to adapt to new online education system during extended closure

Distance learning brings with it different hurdles for each person involved. For some, like Aspen High School English teacher Cerena Seeber, it’s adapting to the lack of an in-person community that is usually found in each classroom.

“I’m going to miss that pretty quickly. But right now it’s just been getting that up and running,” she said of taking the classroom online, which started Wednesday for Aspen students. “It’s so dynamic being in a classroom and reading the room and working as a team. Each period has its own feel and its own personality, and I feel that was one of my strong suits, is actually being able to work with humans in that environment.”

That environment has changed a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we knew it. The Aspen School District first shut its doors due to coronavirus concerns March 13 and hasn’t reopened since. A statewide mandatory closure of all schools has since been issued, and Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis extended that closure until at least April 30. This closure includes all high school spring sports.

“When the first quarantine happened, we thought it was going to be short,” AHS principal Tharyn Mulberry said Wednesday. “Now we have just the opposite, as now we think it’s going to be long.”

While the doors remain closed, the governor’s directive still encourages distance learning, which is being embraced with open arms by ASD. The district officially opened its digital classroom Wednesday, the first step in a return to normalcy for the roughly 1,600 kids it educates.

“It went incredibly well,” Mulberry said, noting that 90% of the high school students were able to virtually check in on Wednesday. “It’s a work in progress. It’s continually being developed and shaped with feedback and changes as we start to go through the actual implementation.”

All classes are now run remotely through Google Classroom with students allowed to work at their own pace. Teachers still hold office hours and are able to lecture and talk directly to students through the web. It’s a workflow that is new for everyone, but after a day seemed to be working well.

“Everyone is trying to figure it out, but so far it’s been fine,” said AHS senior Lauren Fox, the student body’s head girl. “It’s definitely nice to have something, just more things to do during the day. At least some things are a little more normal having school. So I don’t really mind it.”

For older students like Fox, online learning is an easier transition to make than it is for the elementary school students. Aspen Elementary School principal Christopher Basten needed a slightly different model that works better for 5- and 6-year-olds who don’t have the same attention span.

“The idea was make it flexible for the families, make it meaningful for the kids, and start to begin to head down that road of trying to re-create a classroom community,” Basten said. “Having 18 kindergartners on a Chromebook doesn’t work. So we wanted to get the content out there based on the learning targets that followed the curriculum that they could access with their parents and make it a really meaningful experience.”

Basten said the school handed out about 100 Chromebooks to students on Wednesday, and will hand out even more over the coming days. Making sure students have the proper tools, such as computers and internet access, has been a priority.

“We realized we better have a fluid plan, something that builds on top of each other and relies on feedback from kids and from teachers to see what is working and what isn’t,” Basten said. “We fully acknowledge the best things we are going to be able to come up with here at the elementary school are not going to be a substitute for what the kids experience when they walk in these doors with those smiling faces every day of the week. It’s just different. It offers new challenges. But it’s also exciting, too. When we get to the other side of this, we are going to be better people.”

With the statewide school closures going through April, all signs indicate in-person education likely won’t return this academic year. Meaning, distance learning will quickly become the new norm across the state, including here in Aspen. The Roaring Fork School District, which includes the Basalt schools, has implemented a similar online philosophy.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity we’ve been given. I’m also excited about what it could mean for the future of education,” said Seeber, who has two children of her own who attend the high school. “Because I do think we’ve been stuck in this traditional model for way too long and Tharyn and (AHS vice principal Sarah Strassburger) have been great about trying to get us to think outside of the box and I do think this is going to be that push.”