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Remote learning takes its toll on Aspen teachers, students, parents

Glenwood Springs Elementary School third-grader Troy Flohr, center, and Carbondale Community School kindergartener Allison Bate, lower left, are surrounded by screenshot images of students and teachers throughout the area connecting via online classroom chats.
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As part of our continuing series, The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications publications are hosting another livestream at 2 p.m. Thursday. We’ll take a look at how COVID-19 has disrupted our education system, how schools are meeting student needs and what’s being put in place to address gaps in resources. It will be streamed on our aspentimes.com/coronavirus page as well as our Facebook page. To register you can find the link on our Facebook page or go to https://bit.ly/COVID-education-webinar.

Teacher Appreciation Week runs through Friday, but educators aren’t getting much time to hear the accolades.

Like the rest of Colorado, schools in Aspen are closed yet teachers are saying their virtual classroom challenges are unrivaled and their workloads overwhelming.

“I cannot be the same teacher I was,” Aspen High School teacher Tameira Wilson told members of the Board of Education during their virtual meeting Monday, adding that “try as we might, we cannot provide the same, exact experience as we were providing.”

Wilson, as well as kindergarten teacher Beth Wille, spoke to the board about the teaching difficulties posed by the coronavirus pandemic that shut down schools in the middle of March, prompting the district to begin online learning April 1. Classes finish the semester that way, while the fall-semester picture has yet to crystallize as schools across the state and country must await public health orders concerning in-class instruction and crowd sizes.

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Neither teacher came to the board asking for time off, an extended vacation or bonus. They instead wanted the board to have a better understanding of the difficulties of remote learning, and made their remarks during the public-comment portion of the meeting, a time when board members listen to community members — including teachers — but take no formal action on their concerns.

Echoing the teachers’ concerns were the principals at the district’s elementary, middle and high schools, who said the initial enthusiasm that came with remote learning is waning while frustrations are mounting.

“There was a braver face we saw at the front end of the pandemic,” said Tharyn Mulberry, high school principal, adding that economic pressures are affecting school households — whether parents are losing jobs or are working from home, while their children remain responsible for school work.

Grades are a concern, as well. Mulberry reported that 28% of the high school’s student body had either “D” or “F” marks this semester, based on recent findings from the high school administration. Teachers are working with the students to improve the marks before the school year ends, Mulberry said.

“We’re looking at 156 kids who are having them,” he said of the low grades. “And most are failing.”

High school administrators and teachers are examining the grades on a case-by-case basis to determine which marks are more consistent with the struggling students’ academic track records, and which ones might be symptomatic of remote-learning difficulties as well as the pandemic’s major toll on everyday living.

“It’s the highest I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here,” said Mulberry, who will transfer to the district’s assistant superintendent role July 1, after being high school principal since the fall semester of 2015.

A lack of social connection also is fueling the educators’ concerns.

“It’s the evolution of what does it mean to be an online teacher,” middle school principal Liz Meador said. “I think we are realizing that there has to be a lot of social connection.”

Some students have said they “really need their teacher and need their friends, and to be in school, in order to be motivated,” Wilson said. “That’s something they cannot get from an online platform.”

Wilson is also a single mother of two children in the district. Between those two roles, Wilson said she doesn’t feel she is as effective as she should be at either.

“As a parent, it is almost impossible to be teaching and working all day and trying to educate my kids, as well,” she said.

About 50% of the school district’s faculty also have children enrolled in Aspen public schools, said Tom Heald, interim superintendent.

Remote learning can be compounded by home life. Some parents are at home working for a living, and in smaller residences that can mean students taking classes remotely from less-than-ideal learning spots, said Kay Erickson, a teachers’ rep with the Aspen Education Association, which represents faculty and staff at the district.

“The honeymoon phase is over, as you can tell,” she told the board about remote learning. “Bright, shiny, new online learning — people were really excited about it and now it’s steamrolling every day.

“We’ve got kids working in bathrooms for quiet spots, we’ve got kids working in closets for quiet spots because a lot of our staff and lot of our students just don’t have their own quiet space to work, and it’s extremely challenging.”

Affected students cover the academic spectrum, Wilson said, noting “it requires teachers to modify and be on the fly.”

While Wilson teaches the district’s older students, Wille, a kindergarten teacher, said the challenges of remote education also are daunting in the elementary school.

“Doing it over a screen is definitely challenging,” she said. “It’s been fun, but it’s also hard for kids 5 years old to pay attention to a screen and me talking.”

Some classes can be broken up into Facetime talks or other small groups, she said.

Remote learning looks different from household to household, Wille said.

She talked about a single mother of two twin kindergartners who puts her children to bed at 8 p.m., then works from home for a clothing company until 3 a.m., before she rises at 9:30 or 10 a.m. to help her kids with school.

“Imagine how tough that is,” Wille said.

Other households seem to have an easier time.

“Parents living in Starwood are ordering every art supply you can ever imagine and their kids are in hog heaven and absolutely loving it,” she said. “And our biggest issue will be getting them to come back to school.”

Wille also urged the board to abandon academic assessments this spring; to do assessments would be unnecessarily laborious for students and teachers, and would unfairly reflect student performance and progress with the pandemic as a backdrop, she said.

Aspen Elementary School principal Chris Basten said while there are some success stories with remote learning, there is no doubting the psychological toll from the historic disconnect.

“Last week we had our teachers come in socially distanced and bag up 475 students’ learning materials and snow pants … and it proved to be an emotional experience for many of our staff,” Basten said, “and the reason for that, what was alluded to, was a kind of a sense of loss and disappointment, and none of us anticipating the school year the way we’re going to end it. But we’re going to end it the best we know how.”

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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