Summer-learning students, teachers blaze trail for classes during COVID
Before starting math class last week, six Ridgway middle-schoolers carefully chose their spots in the shady space outside the school building, clipboards and pencils in hand.
Each wore a mask as they arranged themselves apart from each other, instead of clustering together to work through word problems.
The students, who are enrolled in a two-week summer school program, are the first to experience in-person classes under the new precautions against the coronavirus.
With about 35 students across the two campuses, summer school in Ridgway is doubling as a test run for back-to-school this fall, offering a chance to see how required masks will work, to try outdoor classes, and to see how much room it takes to keep students 6 feet apart.
About i6 Ouray students are also in summer school classes, but in an online format. Rather than bringing groups of students together, or spending several hours a day in virtual classrooms, two teachers are working with students in daily one-on-one video sessions. The district hasn’t offered summer school classes in recent years due to insufficient staffing, K-8 principal Kenneth Nelson said, but the flexibility of the online learning has made it possible this year.
For both districts, the small sizes of their summer school classes are making it easier to try the new arrangements, and see where changes need to be made when all students return.
“There’s just so many things to think about,” said Jane Wilson, who taught a small group of incoming sixth- and seventh-graders outside last week. She listed a number of complications she’d already encountered in the first few days, like answering questions without getting too close while looking at students’ papers and handing out dictionaries that students can’t share.
Spacing was easier to manage with only a small class and plenty of room outside, though it brought with it a few distractions, like people walking by and insects in the grass. “They’ve done well being focused, though,” she said.
During their independent reading time and a snack break, the students were allowed to spread out on their own and briefly remove their masks, which she reminded them to put back on before regrouping together.
“It’s hard to breathe in these things,” student Sean Lawler said, bemoaning the thought of wearing a mask for an entire school day when seventh grade starts. His classmate, Brodie Musgrove, said the mask makes him feel lightheaded.
“It feels significantly safer to be outside,” Wilson said, but with family members who have higher risks of complications from the virus, “I feel like I have to be even more careful; it’s on my mind basically all the time right now.”
Last summer, “I didn’t have to think of any of these details,” Wilson said, before ushering the class inside one at a time to pick up their backpacks.
Inside school buildings, teachers have separated desks and affixed tape to the floor as a visual cue to keep students apart.
Teacher Kelly Sampson led a handful of first-through third-graders through phonics lessons and a writing exercise in her classroom. On a colorful carpet, they were arranged to keep empty spaces between them, and at their desks each had an assigned basket of materials instead of sharing. When she needed to briefly confiscate crayons and a pencil from one fidgety student, she grabbed a sanitizing wipe and used it to pick up the items.
The younger students had class inside first with Sampson, before moving to the outdoor classroom with Jim Unruh for math class, while rising fourth- and fifth-graders had the opposite schedule. To avoid passing each other in the hallways, they walked outside between the two locations.
After the turbulence of this spring, students seemed eager to have a routine and structure, Sampson said. “This whole thing is so strange, so they’re looking for a lot of direction,” she said. “The familiarity and the structure, they were really craving it, the little ones.”
“The kids are so happy to be back together,” Unruh said. “So many of them are ready to learn; it’s better than just sitting at home.”
Some students needed reminders to keep their masks over their noses, while others seemed to barely notice them.
“I like the mask because it keeps the germs out,” said Michael Burdick, whose blue neck gaiter occasionally slipped off from his ears.
He and his classmates, who sat at opposite ends of a picnic table eating popsicles, said they were sad when school shut down in the spring and shifted online, and were happy to be together again, even if they had to wear masks that made their noses itch.
“To see friends you haven’t seen all summer feels good,” fourth-grader Melany Caballero said, as she and her friends compared snacks under a tree outside. “It feels like normal school, but with masks and way shorter.”
Unruh said it’s good to have smaller groups experiencing the new restrictions this summer, and a chance to debrief each day and determine what worked. They’re getting a head start on preparing students for the changes, too. “These kids will be able to help model for other students,” he said.
Instead of offering in-person classes, Ouray has kept its summer school sessions online, and changed the format to allow for more individual interactions.
Two teachers, Melissa Cervone and Loryn Leonard, each have eight elementary students receiving literacy enrichment. Three days a week, they spend about 25 minutes with each student in a one-on-one Google meeting for two weeks each in June, July and August.
Nelson said the decision to hold classes online was made initially because gatherings weren’t allowed when the first session started, and because of ongoing concerns about bringing students together. The flexible scheduling and individual attention improved participation and attendance, and parents surveyed said they wanted to continue the online lessons for the summer.
“It’s certainly not ideal,” said Cervone, who has taught in-person summer school classes for about a decade. “But when we’ve done it in the past, we’ve had groups of students come and there’s just such a wide range of ages and grades, so it’s difficult to juggle.” This year, she can individually target lessons more - focusing on suffixes with one student, vocabulary with another and letter sounds with a third, depending on what each needs.
She can share a Powerpoint or a book on the screen, and students can read aloud just as they would in person. She’s also dropped off books at home for some students.
“I think there’s strengths and weaknesses to it,” Cervone said. “Ideally, meeting face-to-face is best for the kids,” but the online platform is helpful for engaging students who couldn’t physically get to school in the summer.
“I’m pretty impressed with the skills they’re retaining;’ she said.
While the school is planning to go beck to in-person classes next month, as is Ridgway, teachers are also expected to prepare to move online at any time, if a case is identified and students need to quarantine or if an outbreak forces a larger shutdown. Lessons learned from summer school and from moving online last spring could inform that transition, Cervone said.
“We learned so much about things that work and things that don’t work,” she said. Bringing whole classes together online will be important to preserve some of the social aspects of in-person lessons, Cervone said, but the individual approach to summer school could be emulated as well.
Plenty of questions are still lingering for teachers as they continue preparing for the fall, some of which summer school has highlighted.
Separating students is easier with the small summer groups, which have more room to spread out desks and more space outside.
Cervone has already tried rearranging her classroom to see how she’ll separate her 14 second-graders. “It’s almost impossible, even with pushing all my furniture out of the classroom,” she said.
And then there are the masks.
“Just masks alone becomes a really big question,” Cervone said. Under guidance from the Colorado Department of Education, masks are required for anyone u and older, and recommended for younger students.
Sampson said she’s wondered about standardizing expectations for face coverings. “If we’re going to make this a mandatory thing to bring it from home, are we going to give guidelines of what that should look like?” she said.
The biggest questions aren’t around what students will wear or where they’ll sit; it’s about what their time in the classroom will actually entail.
As an early-childhood educator, a lot more of my stuff before COVID was kind of group-based and more interactive,” Sampson said. “So I’m figuring out new ways to give information with the distancing and trying to still make it fun.” Pre-COVID, teachers incorporated group interaction as an engagement and learning strategy, and now it’s not allowed.
“A huge part of their day is the social factor, doing math games together or turning to talk with a partner, reading buddies, problem solving or science experiments,” Cervone said. “And it’s not going to be that way ... It’s still very surreal to think about what this is going to be and look like.”
One key takeaway from summer school is preparation, Sampson said. Students should expect that things will be different from last fall. “Their parents did a good job preparing them,” she said of her summer students. She recommended “definitely getting used to wearing the masks and being aware it’s safest to wear it at all times, and then I just think being more spatially aware, making sure that the kids know that they’ll be asked to be more separate from their friends than they’re used to."
Liz Teitz is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit program partnering with local newsrooms to bring more quality reporting to underserved areas. Please consider supporting her work at the Plaindealer by making a tax-deductible donation here.