In Aurora online learning, students and parents are missing the teacher connection and support

When Esther Maynez started remote learning in Aurora, she saw some communication that her three children, in elementary and middle school, would not get graded.

But as she’s been helping her children do online assignments from home, the programs are measuring her childrens’ progress as each task is completed. Each day, a tracker for her middle school kids restarts and requires at least 20% of their daily points to avoid failing. That takes hours of work per subject, she said.

The one day her son said he would skip the literacy work because he was overwhelmed, Maynez got an email from his teacher saying that he was falling behind. When she responded to ask for clarification on whether it mattered for his grades, the teacher didn’t respond.

“They had good grades in school,” Maynez said. “Now I don’t know how this is going to affect them. Everyday they add more and more. They are falling behind.”

As school districts transition to remote learning while school buildings remain closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, officials say it can take weeks to get everyone on pace. Districts have been handing out technology devices and trying to help families access the internet — two large barriers to remote engagement. But another large barrier that community members in Aurora have cited is communication.

“Parents don’t even know yet what this e-learning is going to look like,” said Papa Dia, executive director of the African Leadership Group, which works with immigrant families in Denver and Aurora. “Many communications did not get to the parents. It’s sent out in email, and it’s in English.”

District officials have translated many of their communications into at least the top 10 languages, but the district serves a population that speaks more than 100 languages.

In describing the district’s remote learning plan to the school board and to Chalkbeat, officials have said the focus is on “access” for elementary and middle school students. The district created a website where parents can find lessons and work for their kids. In elementary, it’s primarily for reading and math. Middle schoolers have more courses.

Guidance for teachers in elementary and middle school is that they are not expected to deliver instruction. Instead, teachers are supposed to monitor that their students are engaging with the systems that the district has pointed students to, offer feedback, and be available to connect during the day.

It’s different for high school students. To keep earning credits to meet graduation requirements, students must take an online version of classes through Edgenuity. That’s an online platform the district already was using for credit recovery. Some high school students have “performance tasks” they must complete and turn in to their teachers for credit. District officials, not teachers, designed most of those tasks.

It’s a plan that accounts for the vast diversity of the Aurora Public Schools district. Approximately 74% of the 40,000 students in the district qualify for free and reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

Kevin Riebau, the district’s learning resources director, said one focus on the plan was on human connections.

“It was really important to us in developing our remote learning plan to make sure the human relationship was addressed,” Riebau said. “With such a disruptive thing happening here, it’s causing people to be isolated. We don’t want our families and our teachers to feel isolated through this.”

The district expects teachers to reach out to students. It’s described as a daily connection circle. Schools already had those when students were meeting in person. Now that learning is online, officials say they haven’t prescribed what those connections look like.

Maynez said her fourth grader gets on a Zoom call with her classmates and teacher every morning. The teacher asks how everyone’s doing, and then tells them what they should be working on from the district website that day.

“If they would have done some videos or classroom instruction, since they’re already on a video call, it would have been much easier than just saying you’ve got to go into that website,” Maynez said.

Shirnae Mackey, a parent of a seventh grader in Aurora, also said she wishes there were more instruction from teachers.

“I can’t help my daughter; we didn’t learn math the same way they’re learning now,” Mackey said. “There’s barely any interaction with the teachers. That can be overwhelming.”

At a board meeting last week, officials told the Aurora school board that after the first week of remote learning, fewer than 50% of elementary students, about 78% of middle school students, and 82% of high school students have been logging on.

Technology is part of the problem, though district officials have said the majority of the need has been met. The district has handed out more than 15,000 devices.

Dia said the African Leadership Group has been in touch with some families who didn’t know the district was handing out devices for students. Other families, culturally, he said, didn’t feel it was appropriate to be seen taking a handout from the district.

Dia’s group raised money to buy about 15 Chromebooks and delivered them to families. His team has also gone into homes to help parents set them up and learn how to use them.

“I am extremely overwhelmed with requests from families,” Dia said. “As an organization if we want something done, we find a way to get it done ourselves.”

Anne Keke, an Aurora parent and charter school teacher working with Dia, said the group has also started offering virtual tutoring sessions for students who need more support than their teachers or parents may be providing.

“Right now it’s, ‘here is the online link go and do X, Y, and Z. That’s your assignment,’” Keke said. “That’s great but where is the teacher contact? Students have been used to seeing their teacher every day and now nothing. All it is is an email and message.”

Keke and Dia suggest that teachers need to be more proactive in reaching families and students to better gauge their home situation and their comprehension of the expectations.

“As an educator, I know this work is hard,” Keke said. “We have so much on our plate right now but if we want to do remote learning, we can’t do it halfway.”

High school students say their work is boring and that asking their teachers questions by email isn’t ideal.

“It’s very obnoxious to do,” said Diego Angeles, a 10th grader in Aurora. “It’s just boring and bland. I don’t think I’m learning.”

Angeles said he had two teachers who had mentored him, but he hasn’t heard from them since remote learning started. When he does email a teacher with a question about his work, he said he may not get an answer for two hours, by which time he’s already working on something else.

Ashley Garcia, a junior at Aurora’s Gateway High School, said she’s worried about falling behind in her rigorous International Baccalaureate classes.

“It’s kind of disappointing, I don’t feel like I’m being prepared,” Garcia said.

Angeles, Garcia, and other students have also said they’re unclear about how their teachers will issue grades and what will end up going on their transcripts. District guidance notes high school students will receive grades, but they can not receive a grade lower than their third quarter grade before the shut down.

Aurora officials designed the district’s remote learning plan before knowing how long it would be necessary. Superintendent Rico Munn told the board last week that after he decided to keep buildings closed through the end of the school year, it gave officials an opportunity to “really dig into our remote learning to support our students in a strong and healthy way.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the plan is designed in a way that it can go through the end of the year, but said it can also be changed as the district teams are meeting virtually daily, to evaluate how it’s working.

So far, changes haven’t been made. What will success look like?

“We want students to continue to feel safe and cared for,” Pearson said. “This plan can continue to help students grow academically. The end goal is that our students don’t lose ground.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that most, but not all, performance tasks were created by district officials.