Meredith Antonuccio was spending most of her teaching time in her second grade classroom at Superior’s Eldorado K-8 behind a desk draped in a clear plastic sheet.
The extra layer of protection from the plastic, combined with keeping some distance from her students, helped Antonuccio feel more comfortable returning to the classroom when kindergarten through second graders started coming in person at the end of September.
A two-week quarantine in October after a student in her class tested positive reinforced the need for taking as many precautions as possible. At the same time, she said, not getting “up close and personal” with her young students has been one of the hardest parts of an already hard school year.
“What I love about teaching is being close to these kids,” she said.
It’s not just safety precautions that kept her behind a desk. She used two computers plus a document camera to manage teaching students learning remotely from home at the same time as she taught her in-person students. To make it all work, her 17 in-person students often log on to their laptops to join the seven online at home.
“There are just a million things to do (in this model),” Antonuccio said. “We’re constantly relearning or trying to do it better.”
And it’s all changing again. Starting next week, her class joins the rest of Boulder Valley in switching to 100% remote, the same way they started the school year. The district’s goal is to bring students back in person after winter break.
While Antonuccio agrees with the decision to return to remote learning because of high case numbers, she’s worried some students won’t sign on consistently. Another worry is how well such young students can handle so many transitions.
“I want them to make growth, and I want to be part of that positive transition into third grade,” she said. “All of these worries stay with me consistently as a teacher this year. I just hope that when we sign on next week, they feel as happy to be part of our classroom community as I am happy that they are there.”
Changing learning models plus the complexities of teaching in a pandemic have even veteran teachers saying it feels like they’re back in their first year of teaching.
“There are just so many layers that get added on in this teaching environment,” said Dan Greenberg, a 22-year teaching veteran who is a sixth grade math teacher at Boulder’s Manhattan Middle School. “The key is to find what works and keep moving forward. It’s a puzzle I’m going to keep trying to figure out.”
Boulder Valley, along with the St. Vrain Valley School District, turned to a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning to be able to reopen school buildings while following health guidelines. At the same time, district officials have acknowledged the heavy workload as teachers manage what now feels like at least twice the work.
“I walk away from those hybrid days the most exhausted I have ever been,” Greenberg said.
In Boulder Valley, where elementary students were attending four out of five days in person, not all elementary teachers were teaching in-person and remote students at the same time, dubbed “HyFlex” by the district. Depending on how well staffing levels matched up with in-person attendance, some schools could assign a separate teacher to the remote-only students. Altogether, about 25% of the district’s students were 100% remote in the hybrid model.
Boulder Valley’s secondary students, who attended two days for middle and one day for high school, joined the live in-person classes from home, requiring all those teachers to teach both groups.
That’s the same model used for K-12 students in St. Vrain Valley. St. Vrain students attend two days in person, attend live classes remotely two days and have one day to finish assignments independently.
Previously, St. Vrain students who wanted to learn remotely full time were required to enroll in LaunchED Virtual Academy. But with cases rising in the community, the district recently decided to allow hybrid students the option to attend classes from home on days they’re scheduled to be in school.
Parents can decide day by day, giving them more flexibility but making it more difficult for teachers to plan.
St. Vrain also is likely to join Boulder Valley and many other Front Range school districts moving remote as coronavirus cases surge. St. Vrain Valley leaders plan to decide at a Wednesday special meeting if the district will make the switch after Thanksgiving break.
Katie Kelly, a Frederick High School language arts teacher in her 12th year of teaching, said she spends even less time now lecturing to the whole class. Now, most of her teaching is talking to students in small groups or one on one.
“Everyone is in a different spot,” she said. “I wish I could clone myself and have five of me. There are so many moving parts, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before.”
She said the number of students she has in her classroom varies widely by class and day, from just four to up to 24 — requiring moving some students to “overflow” desks in the halls because only 15 students can be in her room at a time. The larger numbers are a result of some students attending all four days, instead of the regular two, because they receive special education services.
Adding to those moving parts, she recently taught from home because she woke up feeling “off,” while her husband and 4-year-old were quarantined because of a possible exposure. All her students, in person and remote, joined in online.
“I’m having to get creative,” she said.
When she’s in her classroom, she has an iPad on a stand so her online students can see the class. The iPad’s microphone is plugged into classroom speakers so they can talk to in-person students. Her laptop is connected to the classroom projector, allowing her to mirror her computer screen for the in-person students.
“I ask every single class, ‘How was your day?’” she said. “I check in, asking what’s working well, what do you like or do we need to shift something. This is a new experience. If something isn’t working I want to know. I want this to be as positive a experience as it can.”
One of the biggest challenges, she said, has been connecting with her students. Starting the school year remote only and building a class community was tough when all her students had their video cameras off and mics muted.
“It didn’t really start to stick until they were in person,” she said.
Even in person, she said, the masks can be “almost like a muzzle,” with students reluctant to talk. Still, more students now are responding in chats online since having a chance to attend some days in person, she said.
“Anytime in person is just exponentially better,” she said. “Human beings crave companionship and interaction.”
Teachers in both districts said they aren’t getting through the curriculum as fast as they usually would. Instead, they’re trying to focus on essentials, going deeper into certain areas. They’re also spending more time making connections with students and skipping some lessons to address social and emotional issues.
“The most important thing is to build relationships with your kids,” Antonuccio said. “Without that trust, you’re not going to get anywhere with their education. Just letting them know we see them and hear them is going to go further than reading a leveled book.”
On a recent day at Eldorado K-8, Antonuccio kept up a steady patter of cheerful, encouraging words during a math lesson, interspersed with regular reminders to move away from a classmate and pull a mask over a nose.
She starts each lesson by teaching a new concept to the whole group and then practicing the new skill together, with in-person students following along with her on a large screen at the front of the class. Then students work in smaller groups, followed by a check-in on how the lesson went. The groups combine both in-person and online students.
During math, Antonuccio juggled helping an in-class boy upset about a glitching laptop while leading a small group through solving math addition problems. She provided a number search sheet for the rest of the students to try if they finished early, reminding an at-home student it was in the packet his parents picked up.
One online girl told her, “I forgot how to do it because it’s way too hard.” She asked all the students to give an encouraging “you can do it” before putting on headphones to help her directly while the others worked independently.
“Nice job,” she told the girl as they solved the problem. “Are you remembering now? You’re awesome.”
Greenberg, at Manhattan Middle, has close to two hours of class time to fill while trying to divide his time equitably between in-person and remote students in the hybrid model. A new block schedule has Boulder Valley middle schoolers taking three classes at a time.
Generally, the first half of his class is a “live” session, with online students joining in from home. The second half, students at home work independently while he works with the students in his classroom.
While he uses cooperative learning apps so all the students can learn together in the first half of the class, he tries to “engage them in person, with computers closed, as much as possible” for the second half in the classroom. Because of the challenge of sanitizing shared supplies, like rulers, he’s also had to get creative with lessons.
Fluctuating in-person attendance creates other challenges. He had one class with just a single in-person student as others were pulled out to get extra help. So he connected that student with one who was 100% online through Google Meet.
“They were doing the same activity,” he said. “It was like they were sitting across from the table with each other, except they weren’t.”
Before Boulder Valley announced the switch to remote, his school was one of nine that had already moved to remote learning because of staffing issues created by quarantines. Making that announcement in his last class, he said, was really tough. Students had only been in person for 2 1/2 weeks.
“This volleyball of all of this is not easy,” he said.
For remote learning, he said, challenges include teaching to a “screen full of avatars,” keeping students engaged when it’s so easy for them to get distracted and encouraging them to use academic language.
“I’m trying to have students use their voice in meaningful ways, not just shouting out answers,” he said. “It’s an important age for them to use their voice.”
With the district now remote until January, he said, he worries about students who are successful in person but really struggle online.
“I have some students who are vastly different students online compared to when they are in my classroom,” he said.
Aaron Hickman, an algebra teacher at Boulder’s Fairview High School in his eighth year of teaching, said his school’s math department tried to build a system over the summer that works in person and online.
He’s using a “flipped” classroom to make the most of the 90 minutes he has with students. Students watch a 10- to 15-minute video outside class on new concepts. In class, he expands on what was taught in the video, has students practice and gives feedback.
“They’re not struggling at home without the resources to understand the material,” he said.
When they’re in class one day a week, he also can look through their math workbooks to see “their work in totality.”
“There are just small mistakes you can’t see online, but can see in person,” he said.
He also helps students at the school’s “math study table.” In person or online, students can get extra help for 45 minutes to an hour at the after-school sessions.
“It’s been a really big group effort to try to find the kids who are struggling and connect with them,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to help them catch up, show us their knowledge, to bring them up and help them find success.”
The support program started last year for students who just needed more time to master algebra. This year, he said, it’s even more important with the new high school block schedule. Students have eight weeks to complete what’s usually a semester-long class.
He said teachers also have a “constant conversation” about helping students manage a difficult year.
“We try to adjust our expectations about what success is this year,” he said. “We try to move kids forward, but maybe we don’t have to move them forward as far as we think.”
The biggest obstacle, he said, is reaching students who feel like math doesn’t matter with everything else happening in the world.
“You try to help them deal with all this adversity and still make positive gains,” he said. “It’s hard, especially when you don’t have that daily contact with kids.”
Suzy Evans, a fourth grade teacher at Hygiene Elementary in her 15th year of teaching, said she’s been impressed with the technological savvy and resilience of her students. A self-described tech dork and risk-taker, she said she’s also appreciated the opportunities to experiment with her teaching.
“This is hard,” she said. “It also could be super-exciting and new and creative and different. Those experiences can coincide.”
One change she uses to maximize class time is asking students to read a new book, or text, as homework the night before class instead of reading it aloud in class. Students take notes, then come to class ready to discuss the book.
“I’ve seen them really love it,” she said. “They feel an ownership of their learning.”
She said she’s also giving students more options of how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, replacing a written response with an infographic, podcast or iMovie.
In her classroom, she keeps the virtual “room” for her remote students open on a laptop that’s turned so they can see their classmates in her room. In-person students also can walk up to the laptop to talk to the virtual students.
Along with creating community, she said, she’s working to model resiliency.
“We’re going to have days that are hard, but we’re all in this together,” she said “These students will probably be more prepared to move out into the world than any other group of students. They will be really resilient to change and the unexpected.”