Students are spaced apart in a kindergarten class, May 18 at Aurora Quest K-8. The required safe spacing has classrooms looking different than the norm as tables are spaced further apart and certain activities no longer take place in the classroom. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
Elementary students line up before starting their first day in in-person class, Oct. 12, 2020, at Vista PEAK Exploratory school. Elementary and middle school students head back to the classroom for in-person learning this week, with high schools starting the week of Oct. 19, 2020.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Last June, the Aurora Public Schools leadership team sat down to define a list of “essential expectations” for the fall school year, even though the pandemic had turned the final months of the preceding year upside down, putting the 40,000 students across Aurora into an almost-overnight experiment in online learning along with millions of other kids across the world.

The district was determined that the next year “was not going to be a year we just held on and survived,” APS superintendent Rico Munn said at a special school board meeting this week. “It was a year we had to deliver for our kids and be held accountable for that delivery.” 

District leaders said they knew they wouldn’t be able to do everything the district did in a normal school year, and so some normal priorities didn’t make the cut. School sports weren’t a given. Grounds maintenance wasn’t high on the list either (something a neighbor to a district school complained about after dandelions from the campus started to pop up on neighborhood lawns). 

Instead, the district focused on meeting students’ essential needs. Was the learning environment safe? Were students academically engaged? Did they have what they needed to be able to learn? Were they being fed? 

Brooklyn Colbert works on school work from her home during a remote class.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Now that the school year is complete, the district is reflecting on its response to a global pandemic. A report released this week details how the district met those original expectations and identifies some of the lessons it learned.

“This memo is not to categorize good job, bad job, whether we made the right choices,” Munn said at the Monday meeting, where the board discussed the report document and recognized community members who supported the district during the pandemic. “It simply is to very clearly and publicly be accountable.”

District employees had to make a “difficult mental transition” during the pandemic in how they approached students’ ability to learn, Munn said. Typically, the school district starts by determining what the best educational environment is for students and building everything around that.

“That got turned on its head during the pandemic, because we had to start with, what is the right health and safety environment and then what can we do educationally within that?” Munn said.

The report paints a picture of an organization that proved to be flexible and resilient in the midst of chaotic circumstances. But it’s also blunt about the difficulties that students experienced during the pandemic and the work it will take to get a generation of children back on track. 

The report shows that students of color bore the brunt of the pandemic. More than a year of online or hybrid education exacerbated existing inequalities. That’s most clearly outlined in the dramatic number who were severely chronically absent over the last school year.

According to the district, which defines severe chronic absence as being absent more than 20% of the time or one day a week on average, the rate among all students increased from 10.3% in the 2019-2020 school year to 23.8% over the 2020-2021 school year.

There’s a significant gap, however, between students of different races. White students had a chronic absence rate of 12.5%, while Hispanic and Native American students were more than double that at 29.4% and 29.7%. Black students were chronically absent at a rate of 23%, and Asians at 13.6%.

That could create a troubling ripple effect for students already on the edge. In an interview with the Sentinel, Munn said he is “incredibly concerned” that this could lead to a spike in dropout rates over the next few years.

APS’s experience with disparity is one being felt around the country. A report from the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month noted students of color were less likely than white students to be enrolled in full-time in-person instruction and more likely to lack the technology to log into class.

“By October 2020, almost one of every ten Black and Latinx households still lacked consistent computer access, compared to only 6.7% of white households,” the report says. “And while only 4.7% of white households reported inconsistent internet access, more than twice as many Black households and one-and-a-half times that many Latinx households said the same.”

Students of color were also more likely to experience economic hardship and food insecurity during the pandemic, and they were more likely to lose a parent to the virus. The report says “Black children accounted for 20% of those who had lost a parent to COVID-19 through early 2021.”

In terms of learning loss, the district lost about a year of reading and writing improvement during the pandemic and about four years of math, Munn said. The district’s long-term plan is to try and catch students up with five years worth of material in three year’s time. What types of interventions will be offered — summer school, night or weekend school, special instruction during the school day — will depend on each student and their needs.

Heathe Stecklein, Director of Theatre Arts at Vista Peak Prep, watches a video along with his class, remotely, as they discuss various sound effects used to accompany visuals in film.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

“I wish there was one answer or a crystal ball, but there just isn’t,” Munn said. 

To help students learn in the first place, the district had to overcome the digital divide. Many APS students did not have a computer at home, or in some cases even access to high-speed internet. 

In just the span of a few weeks last spring APS became a one-to-one technology organization, as it distributed over 27,000 laptops and tablet devices to students for remote learning. The district also checked out over 600 hotspots in partnership with Comcast, T-Mobile and Amazon Web Services.

However, the report cautioned that “technology does not, alone, solve for existing inequities.”

Throughout the course of the school year students at different grade levels had varying levels of in-person learning. The school board, which was in charge of making those decisions, changed course several times in response to changes in the region’s COVID-19 conditions.

The multiple changes in learning format that students went through during the school year were highlighted as a challenge. Elementary students and staff shifted four times throughout the year, middle school five times and high school three times. Having to repeatedly change modes of learning and adapt to a new schedule was “disruptive and difficult to navigate,” the report said.

Students with disabilities, students who had recently arrived in the U.S. from other countries and were learning English and preschool and kindergarten students received more in-person learning than other students. The report highlighted this as one of the ways in which prioritizing equity means that different students will need different approaches.

The district communicated with families much more frequently than in past school years, and the volume could become overwhelming, the report said. Over the school year, 1.4 million messages were sent out to families.

The district had good results with the app Talking Points, which allows users to send text messages that are translated into families’ preferred languages, and the responses back into English. APS became one of the top 15 districts in the country for use of the app, and some families said that the more personal approach to communication was more effective.

APS found that having health information come directly from the Tri-County Health Department was most effective, and that information from Tri-County that was disseminated by district officials was “frequently met with mistrust or misunderstanding.”

At Monday’s meeting, Munn expressed pride in how adaptable the district was during the pandemic.

“I’m so incredibly amazed and proud at how quickly this large system turned on a dime,” he said.

The district prepared students for what it originally thought would be two weeks of remote learning over the 2020 spring break, a tremendous amount of effort in such a short time.

Something that Munn described as a “point of pride but also a point of pain” is how many meals the district served during the pandemic. From March 2020 through May 2021 the district served 7.7 million meals, about 7-8% of which went to adults.

“We became I believe the number-one provider of food in this community over the last 15-16 months,” Munn said, a demonstration of how the district had to shift its mission to serve the community because of how much need was present. The district is continuing the program over the summer, it will shift back to feeding only district students in August.

At the meeting, Munn said that more analysis will be needed in the future and he hopes that this report is just the beginning of what will be an ongoing process of dealing with the pandemic’s long-term effects.

“We will not fully understand and appreciate the impact of COVID-19 on our kids and on this district for many years to come,” he said.