This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Colorado School of Public Health, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Institute for Science & Policy. Find all of our previous COVID-19 webinars and recaps here.
COVID-19 has profoundly reshaped education, from K-12 all the way up to colleges and universities. Many of the challenges have been numerous and well-publicized: children struggling to keep up with virtual learning, parents juggling childcare with their own jobs, teachers wary to return to classrooms until vaccines quell the virus. The central role that schools play in our society has perhaps never been in greater focus. Yet the pandemic may offer unexpected opportunities as well, ushering in new tools and structures that could help schools emerge stronger on the other side.
In our continuing look at the “new normal” across different sectors, Institute Director Kristan Uhlenbrock chatted with Rebecca Holmes, President & CEO of the Colorado Education Initiative; Christie Imholt, District Policy Director in the Office of the Superintendent, Aurora Public Schools; and Landon Pirius, Vice President for Organizational Effectiveness, Student Affairs, and Strategic Initiatives for the Colorado Community College System, about what the near-term future will look like for students and schools.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full recording here.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: Good morning, everyone, and thank you for being with us. I wanted to start by giving each of you the chance to talk about some of most pressing issues that you're currently thinking about or working on. Rebecca?
REBECCA HOLMES: Well, you're looking at a group of people here who think about education all day long, so we probably don't think about things that are normal to other people because it's a pretty all-encompassing body of work to do.
You know, I'm really thinking about the fact that at CIE, we have one foot in the current state improvement efforts in education - we work in about 54 districts across Colorado - and another foot in the innovation space. We were founded in many ways to be the R&D arm to Colorado's education system. And in our innovation space, we had folks last year calling from all over the country saying no one ever wanted a pandemic, no ever wanted this kind of disruption to schools or trauma for families and kids, but we were waiting for and sort of desiring a demand-creating event for innovation in education, that there have been good ideas that didn't often take hold because of a number of features of our education system, including our collective memory about, “well it worked for me,” or “it worked for us” or “it's always been this way.” And so, folks who called all last year were saying this is the innovative moment we've always wanted.
We think we're actually a little out of step with folks like Christie who have a big job of actually running a pre-K thru 12 school district. Last year was the year for emergency response for a sort of, you know, duct taping the thing back together and pivoting on a dime. This coming school year is where we really had an opportunity to rethink all the things you've done for a century in education and respond differently to interrogate everything from grading policies to seat time. And it's hard to make space to do that, but that's really where I'm drawing excitement and inspiration about 2021.
CHRISTIE IMHOLT: Rebecca, actually, I think in some ways I'm operating in that same space right. We both have, as a school district waking up this morning, it's a what are the immediate things? You've got, you know, another few months of school left. How do we make the most of that? How do we make sure we're maximizing in person learning and maximizing that impact for our students and so it is really the day to day.
But this is also the time of the year where school districts are planning for next year and really thinking about next year and so all the questions of what should it look like next year, what is the new normal? And what do you keep? What are the new needs going to be, is where we have lots of questions around.
Are there some families who are going to say we really want more online learning, this has worked really well for me or for my students? And what are our students going to need, who are coming back right as they kind of readjust and recalibrate what their school experiences? So we're kind of in this boat and how do we continue to work for this year and how do we plan for the next year.
LANDON PIRIUS: Well, the advantage of going third is, I get to hear what the other two folks say and maybe just say ditto. We are in that weird space as well in the community college system of trying to figure out how do we end our spring semester. And we have summer classes as well, so we're thinking about summer and fall and what does that look like.
But the piece that I woke up thinking about today was, it's one of the first days of registration for the fall semester for most of our institutions. So we start looking at enrollments and one of the big questions I have is, who's going to show up? And I don't just mean how many students have been approved. And hopefully I have an opportunity to talk a little bit more about some inequities that that we've seen a little bit in pandemics. But we've really seen a drop in the number of low-income, first generation students of color across students that we serve. And we're just really concerned about widening the gap in terms of access to higher education and interpretive success in higher education. So when I look at today's numbers and the numbers going forward, I'm really concerned about what we're going to see by the start of the fall semester.
In addition to thinking about how are we going to teach our courses - are they going to be remote, are they going to be online, and are they going to be in person, all of those sorts of things - we're planning for them. But the big question is who's going to show up, because we've seen a lot of people not show up in the last year.
KU: I actually want us to take that reflective look because we can't understand where we all wind up without having some reflection and learning from the past and what we've lived through and what we've gone through, both good and bad. So, you know, it has literally been a year of adaptation in many ways for us - individually and personally - in so many walks of lives, but definitely through the work that you all do. I want you all to maybe share with me: what has been an example of where you think we have struggled to adapt?
LP: Okay, so I will talk a little bit about instruction. There's a belief that we just moved to online. Well, we did not move online, we moved to emergency response instruction, which is very different from online instruction. Online instruction is deliberately designed and delivered by instructors who are trained to teach online to students who want to take classes online. We were in an environment where everyone had moved to some level of remote instruction, and we had instructors, our faculty, who, you know, 75% of them had never taught online at any experienced teaching environment. 75% of our students had no desire to take a remote online class.
So we've struggled over the past year. And I think we've done well adapting to an emergency response instruction environment. We are struggling with how much our students learning and are they meeting all of the outcomes for courses. You know we are we're trying the best we can to make sure our faculty and instructors have a professional development they need in order to perhaps get a little better over the span of this year and providing the support for our students the best that we can. But I think that's the biggest struggle is that we weren't really teaching online we were really in an emergency response environment. And we had to bring people up to speed, we had to provide access to technology, we had to deal with a lot of outside issues that we typically wouldn't have had to deal with.
So again, I think, in some sense, that's a success because we were able to do it. But in another sense, we're very concerned about the impact on student learning when we return to whatever normal looks like in the fall or whenever that is. And so, that I think has been a struggle for us, the instructional side and ultimately the student learning side. We feel like we've, we've probably taken a hit in that area at our colleges.
CI: I think from K-12 side, with in our public schools, when we, a year ago, extended our spring break so we thought we'd be gone two weeks and then we'd be going back to normal. As we all know, we went over that time, and you don't really focus on providing access, but we used that time, I think, to really enhance our teachers use of that technology, that professional learning to deal with and teach online. And that has been incredible to see, you know, teachers who have just embraced it. You hear from them all the time, ‘we're not going back, right?’ Like, I'm going to use all this technology now moving forward.
I think the challenge is the ongoing engagement. We are seeing and we continue to see attendance and engagement challenges with students. Whether they're showing up, not showing up, or showing up for part of the time. Lots of choices kids have in their remote working and learning from home. And also just the challenge of great online learning requires a little bit more self direction. If they are doing asynchronous work or working on their own, there's a whole set of skills that great, we maybe hadn't fully prepared our younger learners to be that self directed, and they're engaging in that online learning. I think that they we’re looking forward to more of that focus on those skills in order to support students as they grow up and as they move on and have more of that direction.
RH: I’d offer an out of the system addition to this, which is, I think - and there are wonderful exceptions to what I'm about to say - but I think in general, we saw pre-K through 12 fail to acknowledge the assets and capabilities of families. And so we have a tendency sometimes - at CEI, we call this “fortress schools” - we have a tendency to lean into this design of education that makes us feel like we have to do it all ourselves and doesn't necessarily acknowledge that all kinds of families are capable of supporting some kind of learning experience for their children.
And I spent the first half of my career teaching in and running schools that were 90% free and reduced lunch, 90% kids in poverty, largely immigrant, and I was reminded all the time that with the right scaffolding and support, parents of all kinds of all demographics can be the best possible support for their kids. And we didn't, I don't think quickly enough, pivot to recognize that. And we kept thinking about how do we deliver education to kids, as opposed to, how do we tap into the assets of families, and the other assets of communities that can be activated in this time.
The older child response to that is thinking about what kids can do on their own when they're passionate and a little bit supported. We don't have great mechanisms in our system for recognizing the competencies, skills that kids gain when they take a job, or when they pursue a passion on their own. And I think we're gonna see, I hope we'll see, changes in our system that both recognize the power of families, and the possibility of older students to lead their own learning.
KU: So, picking up on the idea of families: Where did we knock it out of the park with this massive change that happened to us? I'm guessing we've seen particularly now, a little bit of hindsight behind us, where we really excelled during this past year. Rebecca, why don’t you pick up from there.
RH: I do think my colleagues should probably answer this first, because they're the folks who've been excelling. The nature of CEI means we're one arm's reach away from folks who are doing the hardest work.
I think we've been reminded of the absolute heroism of many of our educators. We saw teachers figure out how to do all sorts of things, including - I talked to a teacher who said, I teach with three screens open, because I know I have two kids who don't have childcare. And so I am the eyes and ears into that home. And so, we saw schools and educators fill in gaps that they were never designed or trained to fill. And I can't say enough about what it’s meant to watch teachers really rise to the occasion. We know our educators are really tired.
The other thing we saw, and this seems basic now, you have to remember where we were a year ago. We saw school systems, Aurora was one of them, really pivot to fill in the gaps around food access. That alone was an operational lift that I think we've already forgotten about less than a year later. I just have to say, incredible things to Christy and her team and other district leaders across the state for figuring out how to do that.
CI: Thank you, Rebecca. We're continuing, and I think that speaks to what Landon referenced earlier around some of the inequities. I think some of the places we knocked it out of the park were just really stepping up to address those, to make sure that all of our, our students and their families have regular access to food. So that's ongoing. We make sure that there are pickups at 30 some-odd sites every day for families and students and for parents to get breakfast, lunch and kind of a supper snack.
But also then, we did not have a one to one computer strategy. So literally within a month, or even three weeks of going remote in the spring, we distributed 20,000 laptops. I think now we have 30,000 laptops out to our students so that all of our students have that access. They all have that device to be able to join. If you have multiple kids in a household, they can all be learning online because they each have their own device to be able to access that online learning. I think just filling in those gaps to be able to make sure our students have access has been key, making sure we've been supporting families in having connecting to internet access if they didn't have that.
And then I just have to echo what Rebecca said, which is that our teachers have been, you know, knocking it out of the park and just learning, taking hundreds of courses over the summer, 1000s of courses over the summer, to learn entirely new platforms and totally rethink how they teach with students online. And that has been just amazing, to watch our teachers really engage. I think that that is a really exciting place that will lead us to a great future.
LP: A couple of things for community colleges. The technology piece was really an important aspect of our response as well. We have 40 locations across the state of Colorado and many in rural areas. And there's uneven access to broadband, for instance, or to cellular. So a lot of our rural colleges turned their parking lots into, into WiFi receiving places. They flipped their WiFi network external instead of internal so that in those rural locations, students could still get access when they couldn't get on campus in addition to of course distributing laptops and and hotspots and webcams and all of those other things, not just to our students, but to our faculty and staff who may not have had that stuff as well.
We've also, because of the nature of our programs, we have a lot of career and technical education programs that are hands on learning. So really throughout the pandemic from last summer on, we've continued to have some in person instruction. So balancing, you know, having the lecture components - that type of learning was being done remotely. But we really got good at ensuring that we couldstill deliver some of the hands on components - think of welding or auto and other sorts of programs that do require a physical presence - and figuring out our spaces and making sure people were the right distance apart and all of those other sorts of things.
The last thing I would mention, and this is somewhat counterintuitive to what I think is the narrative about remote learning, is I think there's been a real sense of humaneness inserted into some of these classes. It seems odd to say that in a Zoom environment because we're looking at people and we're not physically in the same space. But if you think about all the Zoom or other types of virtual meetings you've been on what do you see in the background? You see the person’s room, you see their dog, you see their kids, as opposed to in a classroom you just see the person and you don't necessarily know what's going on. I don't know a lot about that person. I think one thing our faculty have really done is open themselves up to our students to let the students know a little bit more about themselves, and because they could see their students and their homes and those other sorts of things, they actually got to know their students better. So again it seems a bit counterintuitive to the Zoom environment where we think we're losing some social connection - and I think that's partially true - but I also feel like we're actually getting to know more about each other because you're seeing a little bit of a window into their life outside of the classroom. So I do think that's a really nice added piece to what we've been able to do and I suspect in the K-12 world as well.
KU: I want us to unpack this a little bit and I promise folks we are going to get to that visionary, what's everyone's plans for the future, but Christie and Rebecca, I want to focus on the younger youth population. There's a lot of concern about widening gaps and falling behind. Where are you seeing some of these impacts on younger age children?
CI: There's a few places where we're seeing this, and as I alluded to, this is the forefront of the question for moving forward. How do we respond? I think where we're seeing the gaps are in a few spaces. One, in the academic space. I think the research out there and what we're seeing is in math, right, which is hard to teach, made harder through this digital environment. That is a space where there's lots of new ways to teach math and so everything is learned differently, new strategies.
I think the other spaces is in writing, because to think about or imagine when you are a student in a classroom, you would have a teacher kind of walking around looking at papers right over your shoulder, giving you real time feedback. And that's a little harder to do when everybody's typing, or doing that writing on their own, and it speaks to that engagement.
I think then the other big piece is on the social emotional side. Developing those young skills and especially our youngest learners need to be successful in school right around how to interact, how to collaborate, how to socialize through play and things like that. Now, even when you're in person, some of that looks different because you're needing to keep that distance. And how does that look different in the remote space.
RH: We share some concern about that, as Christie alluded to. We're seeing early indications of some gaps in K-3 reading and fourth and fifth grade math. There are policy conditions in our state that mean we might overreact to the reading gap and underreact to the math gap, and the early conceptions of numeracy and math that students gain in the early years are very hard to make up. We just don't have good teaching strategies for figuring out how to fill those gaps later.
The other thing is I worry that we risk overdialing on learning loss from an academic frame as important as it is. To Christie’s point, you may have a first grader who lost their kindergarten teacher with no notice, and then went months without needing their first grade teacher and maybe never met their peers. And this isn't necessarily social emotional learning in like a soft way we think about it, like, well, that's just about wellness and families can make up for that. Those are critical to how young learners make meaning, learn about themselves, cognitively develop. We know the brain science about young learners through the age of eight. And we really have some work to do to make up for that.
The other major issue that we're paying a lot of attention to in the early learning space is a potential bulge in kindergarten enrollment. So we know that that's where we had families “red shirt” kindergarten, maybe choose to not start. And what that means for next year is needing to be prepared for kindergarten classes and first grade classes that have a really wide array of cognitive readiness and physical size - think about a five year old versus a six year old - and social, emotional, and academic readiness. So those early years are going to need to be more personalized and competency-based to meet the needs of ranges of student readiness for probably two to three years to come.
KU: Thank you, and Landon, what about community college? What has been the impact to the student body?
LP: So first of all, for community colleges, we have such a wide range of ages of students. It's a little different than what a person might think of as a traditional age student entering the university. You know, as a freshman and sophomore whatever, our average age is, you know, around 25. And so we definitely have students who are 18 to 22, but we have a lot of students who are already thirty five years old who are doing a mid career change. They're in construction and now they're trying to get a business degree or something like that and so that's very much our student as well.
Just to tag a little bit on what Rebecca and Christie said in terms of academic readiness, given the wide range of students that we serve, we have a whole variety of students who come in with different readiness for college. We have someone come right out of high school or maybe just completed their bachelor’s, others who haven't. The way that we operate is we're very much come as you are, and we will work with whatever needs you have academically in terms of student services. So I don't know that our philosophy will have to change too much because we serve such a wide range.
But in terms of what we've seen in our students, the biggest thing on our mind is what I started with: who is showing up. Again, not to stereotype or generalize, but very the typical student at a community college system is a mid career professional, is an adult, hey have children, they are working someplace. And often where they're working is in sectors that were hit hardest by the pandemic: hospitality, food, service, other types of areas that might have been hit hard.
I think the biggest impact for us is that we're just not going to have students who, once they get their vaccine, are like, I'm going back to college. That's just not who our students are. They're going to have to write their personal ship before they can make a decision to come to college. They may have to find new employment, and we may need to make sure that their family life is stable enough and their children are back in school or whatever. They may need transportation, technology, food insecurity, housing support, other sorts of things that all need to be righted before they can say, I'm going to go back to college.
And that's a very typical experience for a community college student, a little different from perhaps our vision of a university student. So how we react to that is we need to be able to adjust the services that we provide, have additional support on the financial side, both in terms of financial aid and in terms of scholarships that we can get through foundations, ramp up our food, support, even some housing and support even for colleges who don't have residential life.
So there's a number of things that we feel like we need to be able to ramp up outside of the classroom, in order to support our students and help them as they eventually come back to us whether it's this fall or next fall. And that's where we are. Our biggest challenge will be, how do we make sure that we can support our students outside of the classroom so that they can be successful inside the classroom.
KU: Thinking about the challenges and this disproportionate impact that pandemics have, it's definitely happening in our education system too. Where's the most need and what are we seeing?
CI: I think we also have to remember that there are a lot of skills that our students and knowledge their students gained throughout this pandemic, whether through technology or just exploring new things that they were really interested in. And so part of this is also going to be about us figuring out how do we help to bring those assets and continue to develop them.
RH: We have, as a society, waning trust in public institutions. We saw places where there was enormous trust in the school district or the school or the teacher, and that has been what has gotten people through. And we saw places where there was some unfortunate really trust eroding behavior, particularly for families and kids of color who were also experiencing 2020’s racial reckoning. And if you showed up in a classroom where nobody was prepared to talk to you about that, or create space for that, we've seen families really start to question what that trusting relationship is. Do I believe, do I trust that my teacher who I love is supportive? Do I trust that my child will be seen and recognized and appreciated the same way as their peers? It's a hard thing to move people through, but I think it's been the human emotion that has made a difference one way or the other and how communities have responded and weathered the storm.
KU: How does is the voice of families being included in major decisions when it comes to returning to school, when it comes to education of their children?
RH: I think - and Christie, I’d be curious if you agree with me on this - but this is one of the biggest changes we saw that will have lasting impact in education, that the power balance between families and young people, and schools, really shifted all of a sudden. Families and young people had a whole lot of choice about how they showed up, and whether they showed up, and what they chose, and I saw a question in the chat about enrollment in full time private online schools. The private online schools that have existed for a long time, we know that that enrollment went up statewide by about 40%. Families exercise choice in all kinds of ways that they might not have before.
And in some ways, the system wasn't built to respond very well to that. We saw schools put out discipline policies that said silly things like all remote learners must wear shoes. Well, no one actually cares if your kid is wearing shoes, that's just this sort of system. This is the response that's built into our systems to try to exercise control. And I think if anybody wanted to study one thing, at least in the K-12 sector over the next year or two, it will be fascinating to watch how this balance is being negotiated. We know that Christie alluded to this, possibly families and large systems are going to say there's something about a remote or a hybrid experience that we want, and we're not willing to say our choices are only 100% online or 100% bricks and mortar. We have a set of policy conditions in Colorado that allow families to really lead with where they put their time and it'd be incumbent on our sector to figure out how to respond to that.
CI: I think Rebecca is right, I do think this is both a place where we've seen change, and we'll continue to see change because if you think about Aurora, we were primarily remote for most of the fall and obviously last spring. And it used to be, okay, once a student comes to my classroom, it's between the teacher and the students to right the learning, and then the parent may be brought in. Now, it's really a triangulation because the parent may be in the class if the student is remote, or the parent is the conduit for helping make sure the student is set up right and accessing what they need to for the remote learning. And so it really became kind of collaboration. And I think that this is a space where our teachers have flexed and adjusted.
And there's still an opportunity to really continue to strengthen that. I know for us in Aurora, we have about 160 different languages spoken with our families. And so we had to really pivot and think about, you know, how do you strengthen that communication and so how do you have more of that? We now have an app that we use to be able to allow teachers and parents to communicate back and forth in you know needed in over 100 different languages. That's going to really support, and I suspect we'll see that continue because that creates that direct communication.
I think as we go ahead, one of the things as we think about next year is really hearing from our families and parents. What does your student want? As Rebecca alluded to, what is the kind of experience they're looking forward to and what are they seeing at home that their students want? So that we can be prepared when students come back in the fall to be able to respond to that. Because as Rebecca said, they have insights that we may not necessarily have known.
KU: Let's talk about the fall, let's talk about the future. What's gonna stick? What is transformational, what's been good, and what is here to stay. Landon, why don't you kick us off.
LP: Yeah, actually I like this question a lot, because we're really at that point now where we're thinking about that as opposed to just, how do we continue to respond to the pandemic.
I have a couple of things and they do build off of what Rebecca and Christie said. One is in the area of instruction. You know, this idea that it's either 100% on campus in person or 100% online...we really have found this different modality of instruction that we're calling “high flex.” It's kind of like a hybrid but a little bit different. In any given week, a student could connect to a class live like this, like we are right now, or they could attend the class in person, or if they have something happening in their lives, they could hear the recorded lecture and other sorts of things outside of that normal class period. One day this week, you're going to attend in person, and next week you're going to attend online. So that real flexibility is something that we've really expanded in our environment and think that that's going to stick around. It might not be every single class but we really think that provides the support and the choice for students, for what works best for them, given their busy lifestyles.
The second is just student support. If I think about academic advising or mental health counseling for instance, prior to the pandemic, pretty much if you wanted to speak to an advisor or you wanted to speak to a counselor, you had to come to campus physically at a specific set time and date. Now with this technology, it is enabled by technology. And not that the technology didn't exist before, it's that people become comfortable with it. So now we believe we'll be able to provide students support and reach more students who maybe couldn't come to the campus and actually have one of those advising or counseling appointments.
And the last thing I would say is, I really feel like we've learned or become more empathetic in the past year. We have understood, and for our community college faculty, really understood that students do have outside barriers and issues that that do impact their ability to be present or successful in the classroom. And perhaps there was a mindset before that, well that doesn't matter, that's outside the classroom. You either get here and do your work, or you fail the class. And I think there's just this different understanding that people have a whole bunch of other sorts of things that they bring to the table, both positive and negative, that impact their ability to be successful. And I think we've grown more empathetic to an understanding that that happens. So I like to believe that that will carry forward past the pandemic and that greater understanding and trust amongst the instructor and the student will continue even when the pandemic ends.
RH: I'll be quick just to manage our time. We've talked a lot about younger learner. I wanted to ad few things about high school. I think we've had many families and high school students realize that the way we constructed the American high school, where there's very little opportunity for specialization, students are sort of locked in to what we call seat time in terms of how they progress through classes. And we had grading policies - and I was guilty of this myself 20 years ago - but grading policies that don't honor whether or not a student has mastered the material, but instead honor all sorts of things that teachers designed a long time ago. We have interrogated what we know and this generation of young people will see a lot of change to how young people demand some kind of personalization and demand hybrid experiences that leverage what Landon does and what universities do, and to close some of the silos between high school work and higher ed.
CI: I would echo everything Landon and Rebecca said about the digital space. And you'll see that continue. I think there will be that increased emphasis on relationships. We know that that is such an impactful piece of success in school, and I think we've realized that those relationships are even more critical and more important, whether they're teachers or family or community members.
KU: Thank you. I agree that the pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of that human connection that we were talking about. This was a joy of a conversation.
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