In this 5-part series, we follow Chief Writer Allan Tellis, as he explores the ways that the global COVID-19 pandemic is producing unique local impacts in the Denver region. In this first report, we learn about the ways many Denver-area parents are adjusting to the pause in public education as they’ve known it as schools have moved to remote learning.

The response to the spread of COVID-19 has dramatically reshaped the lives of many Americans, especially parents, whose children have now transitioned from pursuing their education at school to pursuing their education at home. Given the sudden nature of this shift to at-home learning, parents have had to quickly adjust to this new climate to ensure that their children continue to “keep up,” even though they are no longer physically attending school. 

For many parents, this newfound responsibility has been unsettling, as many of them feel inadequately prepared to meet their child’s educational needs. Educational strategies for teaching students have developed quite a bit over the past several decades, and many parents are concerned that their relationships with disciplines like math and science were built on what are now outdated methods. Not only are some parents unfamiliar with contemporary methods of teaching, but many parents are also concerned that they do not have the expertise that a formally trained educator would possess. 

As one mother noted, “they’re scared their children are going to fall behind, they don’t feel adequate. I mean teachers, they went to school, they went and got a degree, a certificate, or whatever you may call it, to stand up there and teach these children day in and day out; and now, it’s just the parents who are, yes their original teachers, but we don’t know trigonometry. And we were taught one way then we went on to working so I feel a lot of parents don’t feel adequate and feel like they are failing their children.”

Beyond what this time at home does to their students’ educational development in the short term, parents are concerned about the impact their attempts at amateur teaching will have had on their child when(ever) schools open back up. As one mother noted, “parents are worried about failing their children. I think parents are really afraid that they lack some of the math skills, the new math skills. Parents are worried about how they’re going to push their child forward and the idea that they have to compete. They want to make sure their child is going to be able to perform at the start of the school year, at the start of the next grade.” 

Making sure every child stays on track can be especially complicated for parents whose children significantly range in age. It can be quite difficult to have a seventh-grader focus on pre-algebra while their much younger brother is constantly asking for support in sounding out words. 

One mother suggests, however, that many parents are being much too hard on themselves. “Take a deep breath,” she says. “I see a lot of the stress that’s happening as self-imposed, parents are expecting more out of themselves than even the school district is expecting, or anybody else around them.” Another mother, who also is an employee of the Denver Public Schools district, echoed that thought, noting that parents need not fret over not having the expertise of formally trained teachers. 

In fact, she suggests a benefit of this divergence from traditional schooling is that it allows parents to help their children transition from being school dependent learners exclusively to independent learners as well. She noted that this moment provides a unique opportunity for students because “this is a perfect time for us to shift the gaze of our content to what’s happening in the world and students can be primary sources in this.” 

This break could have the potential of reducing the secondary skills gap that is so prevalent in our educational institutions and falls on the familiar lines of socio-economics and race. Many students have been made to feel inadequate about their own scholarly capabilities, and therefore only feel that they’ve sufficiently acquired knowledge after a teacher validates their efforts. This lack of confidence can keep marginalized students from practicing learning habits that can make them strong independent learners. 

She says students can find a heightened importance in producing their own displays of critical thinking as it can be assumed years from now people will be trying to make sense of these difficult times. In fact, research suggests that having kids engage in topics that interest them will significantly improve their performance. Luckily for parents, there are many readily available resources that can help them cater to their child’s education to their interests. One mother noted that she has turned to YouTube as a source for teaching her daughter the basic Spanish skills she was learning in her elementary school which provides a Spanish immersion program. Although she doesn’t have the ability to teach her daughter any Spanish, this mother noted that the language videos on YouTube have allowed her daughter to continue her linguistic development even with the current school closures.

Another mother noted that she relies heavily on the online resources provided by the school district’s library. As a librarian, she was aware that the district’s database provides access to an enormous catalog of literature and emphasized that any student or faculty member has access to that catalog. The app to access this database is called Sora, and students can log in with their 6-digit Student ID Number and birthday. Not only do students have access to the district’s library content, but the district has also partnered with the Denver Public Library, which expanded the catalog even further. For instance, she was able to help her children conduct research about the animals they saw after taking a  bike ride through their Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. Other parents have had their children learn the value of finding answers in hard copy books like encyclopedias. 

Despite the novelty of the process of moving education fully online, parents say schools have been extremely nimble and have quickly adjusted to meet the needs of their new, virtual classrooms. One parent noted that her daughter had almost no trouble transitioning to online learning because her school had previously heavily integrated online tools, like Google Classroom, into her daughter’s day-to-day learning. Other parents noted similar successes, highlighting that they had also been reassured by knowing there were open lines of communication if they found themselves unsure of how to use the online platforms. However, there is a significant amount of diversity in the ways schools choose to conduct their online learning. Some students were required to have virtual check-ins with their teacher at the same time every week, at times even every day, while others were given video resources and assignments to complete over the course of a week. 

One mother expressed that the flexibility provided by her school in terms of when her daughter could complete her coursework was a huge stress reliever. She says she’s heard from another parent, who has a third grader, that their child has to be present in virtual classrooms nearly all day. She says that arrangement with the school is difficult for both the child and the parent to manage. Moreover, she said she felt rigid schedules most negatively impacted parents who still had full workloads that were virtual or in-person. 

Parents agreed that the nature of their work schedule greatly influenced how they felt about the ways schools have structured classwork. Parents who were full-time homemakers noted that a rigid school schedule is taxing on parents who have to work. Many parents are juggling the responsibility of full-time child rearing on top of their typical job related duties. This dynamic can be complicated for workers who have been asked to work from home, and it can be especially demanding of essential workers who have to work a double shift. As one mother noted, essential workers are now tasked with taking on teaching responsibilities after returning from their workday in what can be considered perilous conditions. 

 Another mother noted that she felt that not allowing students to work at their own pace could cause strain on a family’s technological resources and schedules. She says the completion oriented model her school has in place allows her children to get their classwork done in a way that makes sense for the family. It also allows them to have some personal space and a rotation of educational devices like calculators and laptops. 

Not only did parents give the districts high marks for their ability to conduct virtual learning, but they also noted that the schools had done a wonderful job of connecting families to resources that would help them maintain an environment suitable for learning during this pandemic. One mother noted that she had seen many other parents get access to things like monetary resources, food, clothing, and other household needs through the schools. She says her school implemented an aggressive outreach campaign which distributed information through emails and weekly newsletters. Her school also took the step of having members of the PTA call and text parents to make sure they had the resources they needed. She added that the school also had a liaison parent could reach out to if they needed assistance in many ways. 

 “I mean the school has done enough. Our school has made sure families got their computers, their hotspots, food, diapers, clothing, I mean gift cards, you name it and they’ve delivered to families I know, so I don’t think there’s anything our school, which is Stedman elementary, I don’t think there’s anything else they can be doing to make sure the community is whole.”

Although there is no one place where all of these resources are harbored, one mother suggested that staying connected to virtual communities can allow parents to find the services and products they need during this time. Virtual communities can also serve as a platform for youth to have positive social interactions. For instance, Denver Public Schools provides a reading group, targeted at young women of color which gives them the opportunity to read and discuss literature.

She noted that groups like Families Against Violent Acts were also holding virtual meeting spaces meant to give community members space and time to have social interactions, and collectively manage the grief that has accumulated during the school closures. One difficulty parents are having in finding these types of resources is that not many of them seem to be aware of a place where information is collectively housed. This mother hopes the archive of posts on the Women of Color Facebook page can function as a sort of anchor point for parents looking for resources. She also is involved in an initiative to partner with the Park Hill Pirates organization for a book drive and literacy campaign. Not only does she help facilitate the book donations, she speaks regularly with the children’s mothers to see how they’ve progressed as readers over time. Both players and cheerleaders will be recipients of the books they are able to collect during the campaign.

*In our next issue, Allan takes a look at educators and their experiences shifting their practice to remote learning.