Replete with a face mask and goggles, the new teacher uniform in the COVID-19 era, Rachel Tabor welcomed back her 18 kindergarten students this week, after they had spent eight weeks at home after a spike in the virus in La Plata County forced the district to move to remote learning.
“I call them my scientist goggles,” Tabor said.
Tabor doesn’t mind wearing eye protection even if they grow a little uncomfortable during the day because it helps lower transmission of the novel coronavirus, and most importantly, it helps keep schools open – allowing her class time with her students.
“Honestly, the positive thing is we’re back together, so I’m willing to wear whatever is necessary to keep that happening,” she said. “It was wonderful having the kids back in the classroom. I’m a firm believer that that’s where they need to be right now, even with these difficult times.”
Durango School District 9-R elementary school students returned to in-person learning Monday and Tuesday. Next week, Monday will be an off day for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, then students will be in class Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. In two weeks, elementary students’ permanent in-person schedule will begin with at-school learning coming on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Middle school students return to in-person learning four days a week Feb. 1. They will have Wednesdays as a remote learning day. High school students will return for half-day in-person learning Feb. 1, with Wednesday as a remote learning day.
Although Tabor had her students for only two days last week, she said, their need for social interaction was readily apparent after eight weeks at home.
“I wouldn’t say they regressed, but we’re all social creatures, and I don’t think they had the growth working with others that they would have if we had been in class,” she said. “Having 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds, a big piece of the year is to see their social skills grow.”
One of the difficulties of working online, Tabor said, is internet sessions can be too focused on teacher-led projects instead of allowing her young students a setting to work cooperatively – giving them room to figure things out themselves and spurring their creativity and problem-solving skills.
Even the ability to have students partner with each other in breakout rooms online didn’t quite match the social-building skills that come in class with the students working together, Tabor said.
One at-home project Tabor had students work on was marshmallow catapults. They designed their own contraptions to try to shoot their sugary confections into a cup of hot chocolate using Popsicle sticks, a plastic spoon and rubber bands.
It’s a project that if Tabor had them in class would likely have involved group work with students brainstorming, sharing ideas and building social skills. Online did allow the students to interact and exchange ideas using Superzoom, but it didn’t quite match real interaction in-person learning offers, she said.
The goals of daily lesson plans didn’t change when students went remote, but tasks to accomplish learning led to more independent work, Tabor said.
“The learning component was pretty consistent, but the tasks changed,” she said. “I think the tasks going forward will be a focus, so what may have been more independent work for kindergärtners last year, we’ll really try to figure out ways how we can accomplish things as a group. We’ll focus on a lot of group and partner work, tasks where you have to collaborate.”
Needham Elementary School Principal Laurie Rossback said the school is in the middle of conducting standardized tests that will provide teachers with data that will help identify academic areas that might have slid when students moved to remote learning.
Test data help identify specific areas of support for individual students, Rossback said. With the data, teachers, teacher teams and teachers working with principals can tailor academic enrichments specific to individual needs for the remainder of the year, Rossback said.
On a broader scale, looking at performance by grade and other demographic characteristics will be helpful as well.
“Once we get the data, we will be looking at what themes we are noticing. What trends do we see in the data?” Rossback said. “It allows us to really prioritize essential skills in literacy and numeracy to ensure students are adequately prepared for the next grade level.”
Beyond the main mission of educating children, Rossback said 9-R’s acquisition of personal protective equipment for teachers and staff members and the growing supply of COVID-19 vaccine should minimize the risk of having the district moved back to remote learning during the remainder of the school year.
Julie Popp, spokeswoman for 9-R, said the district estimates vaccines will become available for teachers in three to six weeks.
For Tabor, anything that can keep schools open is good, not only for her students, but for her, too.
“It was definitely hard not being around the kids every day,” she said. “That’s why we’re teachers – the joy of being around kids. And then also, I just struggled with the amount of screen time, myself. I want to be in a classroom, on my feet, interacting with kids. Remote learning was a good reminder why I’m in the field of teaching and not at a desk job.”