‘I thrive better’: Denver fourth and fifth graders on returning to school in person

Fourth and fifth grade students talk during a virtual school Denver board meeting.
The Denver school board invited fourth and fifth grade students to share their experiences with in-person learning. (Screenshot)

After nearly a year of learning mostly online, Denver fourth- and fifth-graders are back in classrooms. To better understand how students are feeling about the decision, the school board invited several students and their parents to share their perspective Thursday.

While many Denver parents called for the district to reopen school buildings, not everyone is sending their children. And teachers have repeatedly voiced safety concerns, even holding a drive-thru vigil outside district headquarters during the board’s virtual meeting.  

Board President Carrie Olson started Thursday by asking each student to introduce themselves and talk about what returning to in-person learning has been like for them. 

This is what the students said. The conversation has been edited for length. Note: The district provided Chalkbeat with the students’ names but not the names of their parents, who were identified at the meeting simply as Mom or Dad.

William Matthews, a fourth grader at Dora Moore ECE-8 School

William: I really like it because I get to see my friends and the spacing is really good. And the teachers are doing really well to help us do really good work. And make us do our best.

Olson: What’s the best thing about being back in person?

William: Probably playing sports with my friends.

Olson: How about Mr. Matthews? Would you like to share anything? Any reflections you have on returning to in-person learning for your son?

William’s dad: I have four kids in DPS, and three are back in person as of right now. I’m really pleased that they’re able to have that experience again. … What I’ve observed has been going very smoothly. We’re just thrilled that we’re in a position to be able to do it right now and we have our fingers crossed we will continue on a good trajectory.

Olson: We’re crossing our fingers as well.

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Daniela Tucker, a fifth grader at Dora Moore

Daniela: I personally like it because I thrive better, and it motivates me to see other people in my classroom doing their work at the same time as me. And I also like the challenge. And I like it because I can see my friends and I’m not on a screen all day.

Olson: I see your mom nodding her head. ... Would you like to add anything?

Daniela’s mom: I know there are some kids actually doing better with this remote option. It’s great that we’ve had that. ... 

But I know that for Daniela especially, there’s something about her being in the classroom right there with a teacher that she can see, that she can have to hand the assignment to. And she’s with other kids and that competitiveness in you that’s like, “Everyone’s getting their work in” or “Everyone’s learning this,” that you just feel more because a person is right next to you and doing that with you. … 

When she was remote, she did great, she did her work. But I could feel there was less of that there. There were reasons to say, “Well, I could just hit ‘submit’ on this assignment and nobody’s really there to see if it’s there or not.”

Kennedy Fox, a fourth grader at The Odyssey School of Denver

Kennedy: I was nervous at first, but then I saw they were doing it carefully and I felt really excited because I get to see all of my friends. I really like it because I’m more focused in school than I am online because there’s less distractions in school. 

And I don’t have a dog at my door all day in school. 

Olson: How about Mom? Do you have any reflections you’d like to share with us?

Kennedy’s mom: I have two kids who attend DPS. ... Once you pick them up and we’ve been riding home and they’re telling me blow by blow what happened in class and who got this and who’s doing this — the excitement is more than what I expected. 

I know they were concerned about going back and the numbers and things like that, but I think Odyssey has done a great job with the social distancing, the classroom setup, and making the kids feel more comfortable. 

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Serifina Montgomery, a fourth grader at Southmoor Elementary School

Serifina: In-person learning is helpful and enjoyable to me mostly because I have personal teacher support. Like my teacher comes to my desk and she just walks me through the problems that I don’t know. ... 

I can focus on my work because there aren’t as many distractions as there were online. … And I am happy to be getting a little more exercise at recess because we all know that after school, you just want to go flop on the couch.

Olson: And how about any reflections from Mom?

Serifina’s mom: I’m really happy to have her in person. It makes all the difference to be there, to see people, to interact. The school is doing a marvelous job with its social distancing. The teachers have been really well trained. I think all of it has been very successful. 

It just makes the engagement so much better obviously for the young ones. … I’m looking forward for the high schoolers to be able to interact. I think they’re also missing it terribly. I have another daughter in high school who I also think needs that interaction.

Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon: Thank you to all of you for working through this pandemic with us. We know things may be a little bit different, and I know it’s not lost on you students. ... I’m wondering if you can share some things you think about now with going back to school and keeping everyone safe and healthy. ... 

I think I see a hand.

Olson: Yes, Kennedy would like to answer. Kennedy, go ahead.

Kennedy: What I really think about now with everything and us going back to school, I wonder are we going to stay in school until summer break or is it going to go back to online school?

Interim Superintendent Dwight Jones: Kennedy, thank you for the question and that is a really good question. It is our intent to stay in school. … 

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I’ve been so excited to hear all of you talk about the effort your schools are making to keep you safe, as well as for them to stay safe as well. Wearing your mask. Making sure you stay distanced. Washing your hands often. All of those things have such an impact, Kennedy, that that’s what will keep us in school. ... 

So Kennedy, the answer is yes. Let’s stay in as long as it’s safe and as long as our health officials continue to advise us that that’s the right thing to do.

I just wanted to say thank you to the students. Hearing all of you talk about that you’re following all the safety guidelines, that makes such a difference, so we’re so appreciative. 

I also want to thank you parents. I know it’s been difficult. It’s been difficult to just be online. We appreciate your support and your working with your students. We always say parents are an extension of the school. Well, we really got to experience that during this pandemic, and you’ve done a great job and we’re grateful for the job you’ve done. 

And then I also just want to give a shoutout to your teachers. I know it’s difficult, and some certainly have been nervous. But you matter so much to [your teachers] that they’ve been coming in and providing good instruction and doing all the things that we ask them to do. … I hope you’re thanking your teachers because we are so grateful for them coming in and providing this learning in person and we know it matters and you just told us that it matters.

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