Signs taped to a classroom door at Gateway High School in Aurora give instructions. Schools are closed because of the pandemic crisis at least through most of April. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Class is dismissed, but a new form of learning at home has just begun.

In their crisis plans, Aurora schools have replaced classrooms with online, computer-based learning this week as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads and students are kept home until at least April 20.

In pioneering a historic shift to online school, staff for Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District are handing out thousands of laptops and helping connect countless families to free internet.

The goal is to get more than 90,000 kids in both school districts regularly completing assignments and taking advantage of online resources, all the while, keeping in touch with teachers through video chats and other means.

The short-term plans also involve trade-offs about student grading and access to technology.

“We are in an unprecedented crisis right now,” said Starla Pearson, APS’ executive director of curriculum and instruction.

The plans

After an extended spring break, Cherry Creek students tuned in for their first day of remote learning Monday. Kids in APS plugged in for the first time Tuesday.

The pandemic left schools scrambling to find out how to keep kids learning and meeting graduation requirements at least until April 20, when schools are currently slated to reopen. But Gov. Jared Polis has said it’s likely schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year.

In APS, staff tackled the tech issue first. It’s not guaranteed low-income students in particular have access to computers and the internet, so staff have handed out about 15,000 laptops to families as of Monday afternoon.

Cherry Creek officials expect to dole out about 6,000 laptops by the end of the week. Both districts are connecting families to free internet through Comcast Xfinity for two months.

High school students in APS are on the hook for taking advantage of school-provided computers and help with internet to get work done during this time. Work will still be graded for ninth through 12th grade students in that district, becoming part of permanent academic records influencing graduation and college admission.

All younger APS students are still encouraged to do their work, said Pearson, but grades have been replaced with feedback and teachable moments.

In Cherry Creek, high school students’ work will be graded, but students’ overall grades can’t drop down based on work during this period of online learning, said assistant superintendent Jennifer Perry.

Middle schoolers’ grades will now be either pass or fail – a more lenient system. And like APS, elementary school work will just get feedback.

Students are now learning by tuning into digital education “platforms” on computers, where teachers post resources and assignments for them to work through.

Both districts crafted their online learning plans by taking parts of their existing online programs for kids. But those programs, dubbed “blended learning,” combine digital learning with in-person learning at a school-type arrangement.

Now, there’s only the online component.

Teachers in both districts will have to make themselves available for hours to connect via video chats, phone and email to help students, monitor their progress and provide feedback – plus the hours planning and putting together resources, said Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora Education Association teacher union.

That’s why print materials like physical worksheets would be some of the least useful teaching methods during this time, said Cherry Creek assistant superintendent Michael Giles. There would be no way for teachers to reliably check whether a student is doing work – not to mention correctly – short of picking up the worksheets.

In another departure from school,  the normal “class”  schedule in APS is replaced in some cases with hours when teachers can connect with students in their specific classes, Wilcox said.

Students can have assignments posted for days at a time to make sure they can still do their work on time if their home internet is down or all their home laptops are in use.

Arts, music and physical education classes will become a bank of virtual “resources” for kids to take advantage of.

In APS, kids might take virtual tours of museums, view art and create a slideshow explaining what they’d learned. For P.E., students can opt to learn about nutrition and well-being by tallying exercise and caloric and nutritional intake for days. Teachers will loop students into opportunities like these.

Cherry Creek teachers are putting together resources on music history and virtual workout videos – just some of the arts education materials for students to use while stuck at home.

The hurdles

Pearson stressed that, for APS, these measures are no substitute for real school. She said these are short-term plans amounting to an online “experience” to “support” learning at home.

Wilcox, representing teachers in APS, said he thought the district staff had done a “phenomenal job” getting families access to the laptops they’ll need for work.

“Given the circumstances, it is the best it can be done. I also don’t think it’s a replacement for actual instruction in face-to-face environments,” he said.

A big challenge will be keeping kids engaged without a teacher to enforce discipline and keep students focused.

District officials said virtual communication will be key to keep kids and families plugged in. In Cherry Creek, counselors will still be working to help students apply for college admission and release transcripts. The district is also setting up a new health hotline connecting families to mental health resources – an important source of care for students.

APS officials said maintaining a human connection – albeit virtually – is crucial for students and teachers.

Michael K. Barbour, a fellow with the National Education Policy Center based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been watching the school transitions in Colorado and across the country. He is also an associate professor of instructional design at Touro University California.

He said the remote learning and crisis measures are “perfectly acceptable” for the time being.

But some choices are near-impossible, he said, such as grading at the high school level.

Work in lower grades is more flexible and can be made up later, he said. But in high school, grades are necessary for graduation. Plus, he said it’s hard for students to progress in sequential courses like calculus without the last six weeks of pre-calculus.

“There’s no good answer for it, and there’s no right answer for it,” he said of the conundrum.

On the other hand, school districts can’t ensure that every student has reliable access to the online platforms – even when handing out as many laptops as possible. That risks an equity gap where low-income and homeless students could fare worse during this remote learning period.

It’s a problem Pearson acknowledged. “Even with us providing tech, it’s still not a guarantee that every student will use it, access it, leverage it,” she said.

Barbour said remote learning strategies will get smarter as time goes on.

He thinks it’s likely the pandemic will come in waves for months. If that’s the case, he expects the district leaders spearheading this hectic transition to sit down and hammer out a permanent course of action if schools remain closed in the fall and beyond.