By Ernest Gurulé
There may never be a spring like the one experienced in 2020. Denver and the country got a real-time education on how a pandemic begins. Every news report, every newspaper headline, was about something called COVID-19.
Whatever we needed to do, we needed to do quickly. Drastic times called for drastic measures. Perhaps one of the first of many drastic measures was the shutting down of traditional education for an estimated 90,000 Denver students.
On April 3, 2020, then Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova sent out a system- wide letter announcing the shuttering of the schools. All future education would be “remote learning for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.” An unheard of, unimaginable precedent was happening before our eyes.
In-person classes came to a screeching halt. Attending class was not an option. Logging on electronically—virtual learning—became the norm. But there was nothing normal about this high-tech option. An immediate challenge DPS and hundreds of school districts nationwide found themselves in was delivering computer notebooks.
Everybody, everywhere needed them. The distribution of notebooks was stalled with snags in the supply chain, the same snags affecting the delivery of everything shipped to this country. The purchasing power and sudden massive orders of DPS and every other district made no difference. Demand was overwhelming and shortages were everywhere.
“Every school district is competing for the same pool of available devices,” DPS director of field services Jason Rand told EdWeek, an online site that writes about education. “We were happy to secure the 3,000 devices.”
Subsequent deliveries somewhat stanched the bleeding. But it wasn’t just the delivery of hardware that suffered. With on-site, hands-on teaching suspended, delivering education, instilling skills, and everything else that students gain in the classroom were the first casualties.
In an interview conducted shortly after being named Cordova’s successor, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero acknowledged not only his trepidation over COVID’s impact on education but also the potential generational ripples it could cause.
“It could take academic years,” he said, just to get back to the proficiency of where (the students) were. “It’s undetermined…but anything beyond a year will be a tragedy.”
That was months ago and it’s still undetermined. Denver School Board President Xόchitl Gaytán worries that the district is still scrambling to find its way out of the COVID-caused darkness.
“A year or two from now we’re going to see how far those children have fallen behind,” she said. Gaytán also worries that there may be lingering “mental and emotional health” issues. “We’re already seeing an increase in children needing mental health support.”
Gaytán concedes that virtual learning was the only option to maintain an educational connection while schools were closed. But home for many, especially low income or minority students, was not the best learning environment.
Some parents had to leave their children for work and couldn’t monitor their progress. In other cases, she said, there were “negligent parents, abusive parents … so many scenarios that children experience.” Then there was supplying basic nutrition for the students whose first two meals of the day were normally provided at school.
Gaytán told the story of one child who, when asked by his teacher if he was eating regularly, said that “we got meat but we don’t have the bread.”
The child, she said, couldn’t even put together a whole meal. While the district did its best to maintain a virtual classroom connection, it simply did not have the means to deliver meals.
“You needed transportation to pick up your lunch,” she said.
Without a vehicle, families were left to their own devices. COVID, said Gaytán, created challenges that few districts were prepared to handle. But while delivering meals was an unsolvable issue, Gaytán had high praise for many of DPS teachers.
Teachers, she said, made sure that Chromebooks got into students’ hands. It didn’t stop there.
“My son had an assignment and needed certain art supplies,” she said. “His teacher drove to my house and dropped off art supplies in the middle of the night.”
A Portland-based educational research institute partnered with Dartmouth College and Harvard to study the intellectual impact on students during COVID.
According to the study, all students suffered, but Black and Latino students were affected more than their white peers. The research, recently published in an article in The Atlantic, showed “growth in student achievement slowed to the point that, even in low-poverty schools, students in fall 2021 had fallen well behind what pre-pandemic patterns would have predicted.”
At high poverty schools, many of which fit that profile in Denver, “students lost the equivalent of 22 weeks.” Gaytán, the first Mexican-born immigrant to serve as school board president, is herself a product of the DPS system as are her two children, one of whom has graduated while the other is in middle school.
She said she is confident that DPS’ new superintendent and the school board are serious about meeting the challenges of COVID and its wreckage.
“He has committed to increasing mental health support,” she said of the superintendent. He has also pledged to create “community hubs,” places where students and families can connect with mental health specialists. “Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea,” she said, “is just one sector that is in deep need.”
The nation has emerged bruised and battered from an invisible enemy that threatened every single city, but it is now recovering. In order to be prepared for the next virus or still unimagined disaster, schools must meet and plan for the needs of the future, said former Denver School Board member Rosemary Rodriguez.
“We must develop programs that identify and address learning gaps, social and emotional needs; provide equitable access to reliable technology; … and create flexible systems that recognize that COVID is still with us,” Rodriguez said.