Denver Public Schools’ focus on equity plays out in remote learning amid coronavirus

Some Denver Public Schools students come from affluent families equipped with an abundance of meals, technology and support at home. Others are experiencing homelessness, tackling language barriers or lacking internet access to connect them to their virtual classrooms.

Establishing an emergency remote-learning protocol to serve the needs of more than 90,000 Denver students with vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds and home lives — all amid a global pandemic that shuttered Colorado’s school buildings — was not on DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova’s radar at the start of the school year.

Once it became her reality, Cordova said centering equity in the process illuminated the path forward.

“That meant thinking all the way from basic needs like food and support for families who are losing their jobs and connections to things like energy assistance and food pantries,” Cordova said. “But also, then, how we could create an environment where both the social emotional and academic needs of students could continue to be supported.

“We have a significantly diverse population, so people all the way from very, very, very privileged to refugee families who don’t speak English or Spanish.”

Natalie Jacobs is a bilingual teacher to 11 Denver students who receive a majority of their instruction in Spanish. While there are many resources and platforms being thrown at teachers to facilitate online learning, Jacobs is struggling to find tools accommodating Spanish speakers and straining even more to get her young students logged in.

“I’ve spent a lot of time writing out translations of how to log in, making screencasts of how to log in, but then I have families who do not have a high level of technological literacy,” Jacobs said. “It’s been a lot of phone calls and texting with families, which has been time consuming and frustrating because I know that other families are using these things much more readily and probably much more effectively for their child.”

DPS has posted COVID-19 information and resources on its website in 10 different languages, but communicating that to families without internet access is a moot point.

Cordova was surprised how much of a struggle connecting families to the internet was for Colorado’s largest school district, nestled in the state’s metropolitan hub.

DPS distributed nearly 40,000 Chromebook laptops to students in need of devices after school buildings closed in March to help fight the spread of the highly contagious new coronavirus. Of those, the district used bond money to supplant its existing supply by purchasing 9,000 Chromebooks for nearly $3 million.

At least 8% of DPS students don’t have internet access, according to a mid-April Board of Education update on remote learning.

The district also has spent more than $666,000 of general fund money on more than 4,000 mobile “hotspots” to enable internet access in families homes.

Due to nationwide demand, hotspot acquisition has been delayed. Available hotspots were prioritized for high school students in the highest poverty schools first, Cordova said, to ensure older students can stay on track for graduation.

“In some ways we’re grappling not because of the infrastructure but because of other barriers in the same way rural districts do,” Cordova said. “Particularly, setting up our most vulnerable families with internet has been challenging — some of our families who are very low income and our refugee families, and working with our undocumented community who actually can qualify for things like Comcast Internet Essentials but are afraid to share their private information. It’s become clear to me that broadband needs to be treated like a utility like electricity and water.”

Technological and emotional needs

However, the battle doesn’t end once technology and internet are acquired. Basic needs take precedent.

DPS has handed out more than 177,000 meals to students and their families who may have normally relied on school breakfasts and lunches or who are now having a hard time making ends meet amid a drastic spike in layoffs, furloughs and business closures.

Cordova noted supporting the emotional needs of students, educators and staff also was a priority during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Obviously, there are lot of sick people,” Cordova said. “There’s going to be a lot of grief. One of my aunts passed away, and I can’t see my cousins right now. It’s just this weird space, and when this all comes to an end, it’s all going to be there. We will need to be thoughtful about how we support the emotional needs of our students.”

Jacobs worries about her students’ social and emotional growth as they’ve been abruptly plucked from their school communities and peers and instructed to keep away from their friends and teachers who typically make up big portions of their day.

“Plus, I have some families where parents are working from home and trying to simultaneously support their student and some families where their level of schooling might not be supporting what their student needs at home now,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs’s class is small enough to allow time to video chat one-on-one with students who can catch glimpses of familiar classroom decorations like a piñata and pictures of their class behind their teacher while learning about double-digit addition and subtraction.

Jacobs is trying to let her families know she doesn’t want to add stress to their lives for the sake of completed homework assignments in an already concerning time.

While some parents are complaining about the rigor and amount of coursework, Cordova said others are complaining there isn’t enough for their kids to do.

“We need to be back in our buildings”

Courtney Forman, a fifth-grade teacher at Samuels Elementary School, said she wants to help her class in these uncertain times by making them feel like students again and giving them purpose throughout their day.

“I don’t want to make something hard enough that they don’t want to even go on there, and I don’t want to insult their intelligence by giving them work that’s dumbed down, but I don’t want to heighten their stress for them and their parents,” Forman said. “I’m looking for that sweet spot, and it’s so hard to gauge from a distance.”

Everything is so much harder at a distance, Cordova agreed.

In the superintendent’s eyes, a successful day means teachers meaningfully engaged with kids. If that wasn’t possible because a student’s parent was too busy working that day or some other individual circumstance, then at least parents and caregivers can communicate that everyone is safe, Cordova said.

Even with parents, teachers, students, staff and district administrators working tirelessly, there are still students without internet access, some who haven’t been able to be reached by their teachers and others navigating a scary time without the same support of their teachers and peers they may be used to.

“I don’t want to pretend like this will be a solution long-term for the learning needs of our kids,” Cordova said. “We are not geared up to do this well at a large scale — and that’s not to say we can’t get there — and I think people are doing phenomenal work to make it work. But, ultimately, when it’s safe, we need to be back in our buildings interacting with kids.”

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