Distance learning redux: why this Denver high school went virtual

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More than 100 family members called Denver’s Northfield High School – 1,550 enrollments – on Monday to say their children would be absent on Tuesday, the first day back to school after winter break. The reason? Their teens were suffering from COVID, were exposed to COVID, or exhibited COVID-like symptoms, Principal Amy Bringedahl said.

Five teachers became ill for the same reasons, as well as a deputy director, the dean, the director of facilities and the health aide. Later that day, the school’s relatively new on-site rapid COVID test revealed a few other asymptomatic but positive teachers.

On Monday evening, Bringedahl and his team had made the decision to switch to distance learning for two days. On Wednesday, they decided to extend the closure of the Northfield building for two more days, until Friday. “I believe deeply in what we do,” said Bringedahl. “If we can reduce it now, we have a much better chance of staying in person.”

As one of the first schools in Denver to announce the switch to distance learning, Northfield was perhaps a little early, in part thanks to the foreknowledge provided by its rapid test program. But the decision is another school facing the omicron variant, causing the number of COVID cases to skyrocket. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said on Tuesday that one in four people tested for COVID in Denver was positive, a staggering 25%.

Although the vast majority of Denver’s 206 schools reopened for in-person learning on Tuesday, at least 17 schools had announced full or partial crossings to distance learning on Wednesday. Most shifts, whether they affect the whole school or a single grade level, are due to staff shortages.

Principals in Denver are responsible for assessing whether they have enough staff to keep classrooms open. But a new policy instituted this fall says the superintendent must approve any school building closures, district spokesman Scott Pribble said.

“We take the decision to switch to distance learning very seriously and we want to make sure that every decision is viewed from the same perspective,” said Pribble.

Superintendent Alex Marrero has repeatedly stated that he is committed to keeping schools open for in-person learning for as long as possible. In a December 29 open letter, he called building closures a “last resort, because we know how difficult it is for families to get through a distant day on short notice.”

At Northfield, students said the switch to distance learning on Tuesday was disappointing but smooth. The most troubling part was how long the change would last and whether it would be a repeat of the “extended spring break” of March 2020 that turned into months of distance learning. Denver high schools did not reopen for in-person learning until January 2021.

“Planning ahead for the rest of the year is like, should I be worried that it will stretch out any longer? Said Hola Maka, 16, a junior from Northfield High. “Should I plan the prom?” Should I go buy my ball gown or should I buy more pajamas? “

In an email to families on Wednesday, Bringedahl said the school does not anticipate a long-term return to distance learning. However, she said her teachers were prepared to do short-term shifts on the fly. Throughout the fall semester, Bringedahl said she told her staff every day to bring home whatever they need to teach online. Northfield only had to walk away another time, a single day that 15 staff members were away, Bringedahl said.

Other days, teachers in Northfield hedged each other, abandoning their planning periods to teach classes to their colleagues when the school couldn’t find a replacement. If no teacher could cover, the school would combine classes, sometimes changing the location from a classroom to the library, which can accommodate more students, Bringedahl said.

This is not ideal for student learning or staff morale, Bringedahl said, and the possibility that Northfield would have to scramble this week played into the decision to go remotely. The shift to e-learning also allows students who would otherwise be absent to attend their classes virtually. Most of the absent students have mild COVID symptoms, are asymptomatic, or are in good health but quarantined and can still learn online, she said.

“This loss of learning is significant for children when they are quarantined and cannot be in the classroom,” Bringedahl said. “Being at a distance gives them the opportunity to continue their learning. “

While the transition to distance learning went smoothly for Northfield this week, students said being online brought back feelings of hopelessness and a lack of motivation.

“It’s back to the whole of 2020 [thing] cameras off, you don’t want people to see you, ”said Eduardo Hernandez, 18, senior from Northfield High. he said.

Senior Elliott Guinness, 18, said he looks forward to seeing his friends in person this week, but he’s not surprised it hasn’t happened. His vaccinated mother is among the wave of people in Denver who contracted COVID during the winter break, he said.

“Once the hiatus really started, it felt like a stampede of people had both omicron and COVID,” Guinness said. “At one point, students and people my age are like, ‘Okay, I’m a little overwhelmed. Let’s go back to normal. And then all of a sudden it was like the start of COVID again. “

District and school officials are adamant this will not be the case. In his email to families, Bringedahl said extending distance learning until Friday would allow all teachers and staff diagnosed with COVID this week and most students quarantined to return in person. Monday.

With its onsite rapid testing program, Northfield has more visibility into how COVID is circulating than most schools in Denver. It is the only district-run school that participates in the state sponsored program, which provides the staff to take the tests and pays the students to participate: $ 25 for their first test and $ 10 for each subsequent test. The school is also paid $ 2.50 for each test.

More than 800 students and staff have signed up for the program, which began in Northfield in mid-December. Of the more than 340 tests administered before the winter break, none came back positive, said Melinda Pearson, the school’s communications specialist.

But on Tuesday, when the school opened its doors to staff and students to get tested during distance learning, Pearson said 23 of 209 tests were positive, a rate of 11%. Most of the students and teachers who tested positive were asymptomatic, she said.

Parent Tom Romero, whose son is in second grade, said he was thrilled that Northfield offered rapid testing, and he was happy to see the school switch to distance learning this week, although he agreed that a prolonged change would be difficult. The students said it too.

“Hope we come back in person [learning] next week, ”said Maka, a student council member who enjoys the school’s social interaction. “I hope it’s not another April 2020.”


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