For the first time in history, Thomas Jefferson High School is starting its school year entirely online.
How do you plan for an uncertain future? This was the question that leaders on all levels of the Denver Public School District had to answer this summer. Administrators were forced to weigh the physical health of their students against the challenges posed by remote learning like accessibility issues and mental health concerns. After a summer fraught with fluctuating infection rates and changing guidelines, DPS made the difficult decision to start the school year remotely. As a result, the TJ community has spent the last five weeks acclimating to life online.
“A lot of people really like [remote learning]; a lot of people really don’t, but I would say everyone is doing the best they can, given the circumstances,” stated Rachel Teeter, a science teacher at TJ. The pandemic has forced many students and teachers to take on challenges they likely never expected to have to face in their high school career. Street traffic and crowded hallways, once prime obstacles for students trying to get to class, have been replaced by internet connectivity issues and broken microphones. Teachers that were once able to gauge the attentiveness of their pupils with a quick scan of the classroom now have to settle for speaking to a sea of icons featuring everything from flattering profile photos to obscure cartoon characters. Still, despite these challenges, the TJ community has striven to make the best of this hopefully once-in-a-lifetime situation.
“As I would expect of TJ Spartans, they ‘Spartaned up’ and have just run with it,” math teacher Dana Starbuck proudly declared. “I am so impressed by the resilience of the students. They have risen to the occasion as young people do. They have shown up, they do the work, they ask questions, they access resources, and they are comfortable on camera.” Teachers, too, have gone above and beyond in transferring their curricula online. “Teachers have done a great job of getting content on Schoology,” Assistant Principal Paula Hammel acknowledged. TJ used Google Classroom during remote learning last spring, but at the district’s behest, the staff shifted to the Schoology digital platform. “It was a new platform for all of the teachers, so they have done an amazing job of getting it up and running,” Hammel enthused.
Also new this year is Advisement, a weekly twenty-five-minute period where students receive programming from counselors, administrators, mental health personnel, and guest speakers. Denver Public Schools requested that schools dedicate more time to social-emotional learning, so Advisement offered the perfect opportunity for students to fulfill this goal. TJ’s mental health team has used the Advisement period to introduce a mental health curriculum on EverFi, an online course provider. Advisement has also served as a critical resource for preparing students for their post-secondary endeavors. It has allowed Emily Webster, the Future Center College Adviser, to provide essential information on tasks like requesting recommendation letters and linking the Common Application to Maia Learning. The time will also be used for counselors to guide students through the Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP), which is a graduation requirement in the state of Colorado.
TJ’s transition to remote learning has not been its only success this fall. Enrollment at TJ increased in 2020, which means that the school is likely to be eligible for more state funding in the future. “The numbers for us this year mean that we are in a pretty good spot financially,” explained Paula Hammel. Considering the current budget crisis across the United States, it is encouraging to know that TJ’s financial situation will be strengthened by the rise in students.
Still, there is no denying that the pandemic has presented some insurmountable obstacles. “The biggest challenge is not being able to see [the students] and talk face-to-face,” Teeter lamented. Teachers have also struggled with determining the right amount of classwork to assign. Now that TJ has switched from its customary schedule of fifty-two minutes per period every day to three or four hour-and-a-half periods Monday through Thursday, teachers are trying to adapt their curriculum to the new layout. The unfamiliarity of the schedule makes it hard to determine how much homework will minimize stress whilst maintaining academic rigor. “It is a lot of work managing the digital content,” Starbuck explained. “It has been a little crazy at first, but hopefully it will all smooth out.”
It is likely that the current remote setup will persist throughout the rest of the semester. Though students have been given the option to physically return to school in October, they will still receive their instruction via an electronic device, and movement within the school will be minimal. There is simply no way to create a COVID-proof in-person schedule without completely disrupting students’ schedules. As for the spring semester, only time will tell. Factors like infection rates, state and federal guidelines, and the potential distribution of a vaccine will all play a role in the decision to stay remote or return to some semblance of normalcy.
On the bright side, remote learning has presented students with some benefits that would not be possible with in-person learning. “The class records, so if there is anything you need to go back and review, you can,” Teeter reasoned. For rigorous classes like AP Chemistry, which Teeter currently teaches, having the ability to rewatch a lecture can have excellent implications for learning comprehension. The pandemic has also made students more seasoned digital citizens. “With remote learning, access to resources is right at your fingertips through your computer,” Starbuck commented. “Resources like Khan Academy are a benefit because they provide another view of a topic or skill.”
Most of all, this semester will teach students how to encounter the bizarre and unexpected. Indeed, there is no better way to sum up this situation than with Starbuck’s description: “Everybody is just juggling cats right now, but they are doing a beautiful job of it.”