South Routt and Hayden schools take on unique distance learning challenges
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the South Routt and Hayden school districts settle into their distance learning routine, the more rural parts of the county face unique challenges in terms of cell service and internet connectivity.
Computers have been handed out to all students who need them.
Both districts had spring breaks scheduled after the school closures were announced on March 13, so those schools have been implementing their distance learning programs for one week less than Steamboat Springs schools.
At this time, the closures mandated by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis will last at least until April 30.
Both Hayden School District Superintendent Christy Sinner and South Routt School District Superintendent Rim Watson said they have encountered and overcome a number of challenges, and everyone — from administrators and teachers to parents and students — are on a learning curve.
Flexibility and patience required
“Early on, we asked for grace and flexibility as we embarked on this new adventure,” Sinner said. As they iron out more of the logistics, Sinner called all issues workable.
In Hayden, Charter/Spectrum is providing free internet service for all families with school age students for April and May, said Sinner.
The Hayden Public Library also has wifi internet for anyone who wants to use it from outside the building (in a socially distanced manner), she noted.
In South Routt, the infrastructure is different, and Watson said there wasn’t an industry-wide or vendor-based solution to getting everyone online.
The Steamboat Springs School District provided some hot spots, Watson said, which were key in getting more students connected. However, those only work where there is cell phone service.
Watson noted they were aware of and began addressing the unique geography — which stretches from Stagecoach to McCoy — of his district early on in the process.
The educational programming for students in preschool through second grade is not based online, Watson explained. Hard copies of the lessons are picked up and dropped off by families across the district.
About five to seven families with kids in older grades who have no internet connectivity or cell service are also getting hard copy materials, he said.
There are tubs outside of the schools for dropping off and picking up assignments and materials in Yampa and Oak Creek, and the weekly food distribution doubles as a distribution point for hard copies of lessons and other technology needs.
And if a family can’t make it to the pick up point, Watson said, one of the district employees will bring it directly to their home.
In Hayden, hard copies of assignments are being provided for families who don’t have internet access or for those who simply prefer hard copies, Sinner said. There are fewer than 20 students in the district with no internet connectivity, she said.
Providing meals for students
Every Monday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. a week’s worth of meals are distributed outside Soroco High School in Oak Creek.
While the food distribution was initially focused on students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, Watson emphasized it is now open to all students.
Sinner said the food delivery program is going well in Hayden, and each week more people are picking up meals. Once a week, they set up a drive-thru distribution point with four days worth of lunches, a bag of fresh produce and a supply of milk.
The food is available to any local family with kids under 18, she said, whether or not they are enrolled in the school — families just need to contact the school so that enough meals are available.
Teachers adapt in creative ways
In South Routt, Watson said the district made the decision to allow teachers to work on whichever online platform that works best for them, so each virtual classroom looks a little different.
Based on early feedback, Watson said students and teachers preferred to use technology with which they were already familiar — or choose whatever they felt was the best fit for their students.
From orchestra to agriculture, Watson said he’s been amazed at the creative learning solutions being employed by his teachers.
In terms of accountability, Watson said there were only a few students they’ve had to track down to make sure they are staying engaged. Sinner said they, too, have just a handful of students in Hayden that are proving more difficult to engage.
On grading, Watson said he’s seeing a lot of schools taking a pass/fail approach. For now, they’ve decided to figure out a more precise grading system later in the process to ensure no students are being penalized for their varying home learning environments.
“We are committed to getting a valuable learning experience to students,” Watson said. “Then we will figure out the grading.”
Sinner said Hayden adopted the Google Classroom as their common platform and are posting the entire week’s worth of assignments, so students have some flexibility in what they want to do each day. The work just needs to be completed by the end of the week.
One of the biggest lessons they learned in the beginning, Sinner described, was to not overload their families and students.
“The first week, the majority of the staff overdid it,” she said. They supplied what would be a normal week’s worth of instruction. Based on parent and student feedback, they backed off a bit, she said, and now work toward that sweet spot of keeping students working and engaged but not overwhelmed.
For elementary students, they made electives like art, music and physical education optional, she said.
A highlight of the day for elementary students is their class meeting when they all get to see each other’s faces, Sinner said. “They are learning a lot about muting and unmuting.”
Watson said the high school students seem to be having an easier time with independent learning, while the younger ones are more likely miss that direct contact with their teachers.
By nature the learning model is “much more parent dependent at the younger grades and ages,” he noted.
Still, in design phase, Watson’s staff were very intentional in creating a model that was not parent dependent.
“We want it to be parent supported, but not dependent,” he said. “We can’t be trying to turn parents into teachers — that’s our job.”
One of the toughest things for the teachers is not having direct contact with their students, Watson noted.
“We’re not getting that positive relationship part,” he said. “We’ve lost the joy of getting to interact with the kids.”
Sinner commented on how much she misses interacting with her staff and said she encourages them to join regular online “coffee chats” for teachers to see and talk to each other and know they’re supported.
Schools working to address mental health needs
Administrators are also finding the need to balance academics with addressing the general health and well being of their families.
The newness of the situation has worn off, Watson noted, and many families are now feeling massive economic impacts.
“We are doing our part to take that burden off in any way we can,” he said. “The thing that is really hitting our community is unemployment — and we have to factor that into all of the decisions to make sure we are meeting peoples’ needs outside of just education.”
Making sure the students’ mental health needs are being addressed is a big component right now, Watson said, and one that sometimes supersedes academics.
With a small school and a strong counseling staff, Watson noted many of the students who present higher risks are already on their radar. His staff is actively checking on students, he said, and there have been a few situations in which the district stepped in to provide additional resources.
“As a district, we have made multiple targeted student/family contacts toward mental health needs we were already aware could be exacerbated, or have perceived, developed because of this crisis,” he said.
Sinner said her counselors conduct sessions over the phone and have a good understanding of where families are and what they need.
Both superintendents said graduation plans are being prioritized but have not been finalized.
“We know our students are missing some of the great experiences of school, and we are trying to work with them through that,” Watson said.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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