Roaring Fork Schools decision to open year with remote learning prompts discussion around home ‘learning pods’

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
In this June 2016 file photo, Glenwood Springs Elementary students check out the Chromebooks that have become ever-so-important to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Glenwood Springs Post Independent File
Special School Board meeting Wednesday There will be a special meeting of the Roaring Fork School District Board of Education at 2 p.m. Wednesday via Google Meet, to discuss the fall 2020 plan and take action on related policies and a resolution. Here's the agenda with a link and call-in information to join the meeting.

The concept of “learning pods” — small groups of students gathered in homes doing their distance learning together — is an idea that’s being mentioned as Roaring Fork Schools parents grapple with a return to remote learning to start the new school year.

The district announced late last Friday that it will open the school year on Aug. 17 using an “improved” distance learning model, at least through Sept. 21 while the public health threat from the COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect of in-person learning is further assessed.

As many public schools across the state, including Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, proceed in that direction, the learning pods approach has started to gain some traction.

The idea is that working parents can take turns sharing the responsibility of supervising students in the same grade or even class while they do their school work and engage with teachers and other classmates online.

One longtime school district critic, Stacey Craft of Basalt, said it’s something she believes the district should not only support but actively help facilitate. She explained that schools should be empowering parents who not only want to, but simply need to find a way to juggle work obligations and support their children while they are learning from home. 

“The schools could be sending parents a list of other parents whose children are in the same classroom, so that they might be able to craft pod solutions that allow kids to have supervised home learning and gives parents childcare solutions so that they can go to work,” said Craft, whose own kids have graduated but who continues to follow school district matters closely.

That could be facilitated using a free platform such as Sign Up Genius to organize the pods, she said.

In one recent Facebook post following the school district’s announcement, Honey Tree Preschool in Carbondale also suggested a version of the learning pods approach using volunteer facilitators, either in the home or other gathering sites.

“It’s time to act, get together and start small group virtual learning with volunteer facilitators — follow(ing) masking and social distancing — and add value to the first month of school,” the post read. “Find locations and share days with other parents so some can teach and some can go to work.”

Roaring Fork Schools Superintendent Rob Stein said he would support the pod approach, as long as it can be done in a way that protects student privacy and is done safely with COVID health protocols for any types of in-person gatherings.

However, it’s not something the district has the resources to directly facilitate, he said.  

“It’s new to me as an idea, but it sounds like a good idea and is probably something we would encourage,” Stein said.

The district is planning more intensive parent orientations around distance learning during the first week of the new school year.

“We do want to provide more tools and skills for parents to support kids on their side of this divide,” he said.

If small groups of students who are learning at the same level is one way to accomplish that, let those conversations begin, Stein said.

“If managed safely, I think that’s something we can support,” he said.

But it also gets to the discussions that will be taking place during the first few weeks of school as the district weighs an interim hybrid model or a full return to classroom instruction, Stein said.

“This whole notion of a hybrid, I define as the transition to in-person learning,” he said. “Everybody wants to get back to in-person, but how much in-person can we manage safely?”

Improved remote model to start   

In the meantime, distance learning to start the new school year will look a lot different than it did in the spring when schools were forced to close mid-semester as the coronavirus outbreak began.

Exactly how different is outlined in a detailed Distance Learning Improvement Plan that’s posted atop the home page on the district’s website, in both English and Spanish, under the “Distance Learning Model” banner.

The plan includes:

  • A synchronous approach involving more live classes using Google Meet that students will be required to participate in
  • More accountability for students to engage in class time and online learning
  • More digital tools for early elementary students (K-2), using touch-screen Chromebooks, rather than paper assignments that were used in the spring
  • More communication between teachers, students and families
  • More home internet access options for families who have limited or no access
  • Better support for families and students
  • More teacher collaboration 

Reactions mixed

The decision to start the year with distance learning has drawn a variety of reactions from parents and teachers. A special school board meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday via video conference is expected to include a wide range of comments and suggestions, Stein said.

“We know that people will have different reactions to this news, including relief, disappointment and many emotions in between,” Stein wrote in the Friday announcement. “Like all of you, we feel immense sadness that our students will not start the year in school classrooms.”

Many parents and teachers find themselves on different sides of those reactions. 

A 58% majority of teachers responding to a survey put out by the Roaring Fork Community Education Association  (RFCEA) — which represents about half the 400 teachers in the district — said they would prefer to start the year with distance learning, for safety’s sake.

But that left 42% in between wanting to return full-time to the classroom (17%), or using a hybrid model of both in-person and remote learning (25%).

“RFCEA represents the school district teachers and we are committed to the safety of our staff, students and the community,” RFCEA President Rhonda Tatham said in a statement responding to the district’s decision on Friday.

Patti Watson has two children — a second grader and an eighth grader — at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs. She said she doesn’t envy those who had to make the decision on how best to start the school year, given the ongoing pandemic and recent surge in new cases of COVID-19 locally.

“While the decision to have distance learning is not ideal, there is no ideal situation here,” she said. “I would rather have my kids attend school, but not at the risk of them getting sick or accidentally getting someone else’s family sick. 

“We as a community chose to reopen, argue about masks, and take vacations.This is the consequence of that,” Watson added.

At the same time, she said she feels for the families who will struggle with keeping their children at home to start the new school year. 

“There are working families that will have to figure out child care, internet solutions, etc.,” she said. “And there are teachers who will struggle with having their own kids at home while having to teach ours.”

Personally, she said her family has the luxury of bringing their children to work and monitoring their studies in that environment.

Craft added that she worries about students and families who aren’t adept at keeping up with online studies falling further behind.

“Children in this district, Anglos and Latinos alike, have abysmal reading scores,” Craft said, noting that only 30% of third graders at Basalt Elementary School were proficient in language arts during the last round of testing in spring 2019.

Similarly low scores are common across the district in math, she said.

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