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A recent CDE report showed a decrease in CMAS performance from 2019 to 2021.

Students started classes last month across Colorado Springs — and every school district opted for in-person classes. 

The 2020-2021 school year was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing districts to quickly adapt to remote learning to prevent the spread of the virus, and once the lockdown was over, districts still had to work through mask mandates and quarantine procedures as outbreaks continued. 

The early success of the COVID vaccine led to the end of Gov. Jared Polis’ emergency orders, and an end to mask mandates across the state. But even with the Delta variant surging in El Paso County, districts and political leaders are hesitant to mandate masks and vaccinations.

But the worries over COVID haven’t dampened the kids’ enthusiasm.

“For the kids, they’re excited, obviously,” said Tonya Acosta, the parent of a second-grader at Sand Creek International School in Harrison School District 2. “For us, we’re a little nervous, just with everything going on. We’re just trying to go with the flow.”

D2, like other school districts in Colorado Springs, is not requiring students to wear masks. “It is optional, but the district is following any guidelines set forth by El Paso County Public Health,” said Angela Vance, a district spokesperson.

Colorado Springs School District 11 has a similar policy.. 

“D11 continues to review all of the ever-changing guidance and COVID data to inform our decision-making,” said Devra Ashby, D11’s chief communications officer, in an email. “For now, masks are strongly encouraged, but not required for all. This could potentially change and we’ve asked our families to consistently check their emails, texts and app push notifications from D11 to stay on top of the most recent information.”

Acosta, who also has two preschool-aged children at home, decided to have her child wear a mask. “Just for protection,” she said. “He has asthma, and I’ve got little kids too. I’m trying to protect them and him too.”

Concerns about COVID infection aren’t just about student health and well-being. 

Last year, COVID outbreaks led to school shutdowns, bouncing students from in-person learning back to remote learning at home. While schools are hoping for the best this year, they’re also prepared for the worst. 

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Students at Sand Creek International on the first day of school.

“We’re lucky that last year was the best you could hope for in terms of training for that type of pivoting and pandemic learning, because our teachers are now experts on virtual learning and distance learning and all the different combinations that exist because they lived through it last year,” said Charley Ryder, the principal at Sand Creek International School. “Fortunately, we have that institutional knowledge at this point. Our teachers have a lot of ability to kind of pivot between all sorts of models. Even if there aren’t major changes about what learning looks like, we’re able to infuse more technology into the classroom and be more deliberate about instruction generally.”

Online offerings are available for parents who are concerned about sending their students to the buildings, and districts in D2 and D11 have invested in dedicated online academies for students.

“Last year, we had an average of 25 percent of students across all grades in the district who opted to remain online when given the choice,” said Julie Johnson, principal of D11’s Spark Online Academy.

At least one parent agrees with having an online option as well as an in-person choice. 

“It’s a good option,” said Acosta. “We decided [in-person] because he was excited to go.”

For almost 12 years, D11 has had an online alternative program, Achieve, that serves students in grades six through 12. This year, it expanded those offerings with the Spark Online Academy for kindergartners through eighth-graders. Spark’s early enrollment numbers look promising.

“We currently have 351 applications submitted as of the time of this email,” said Johnson. “Applications are coming in at a rapidly increasing rate. We have had 125 applications for enrollment submitted since Aug. 1.”

Enrollment is often a concern for local schools. The Colorado Department of Education reported a 3.3 percent decrease in school enrollment last year as a result of COVID-19. The good news is not every parent is interested in online classes through the academies..

“We have around 27 percent of our applications coming from students who were not currently attending D11 schools,” said Johnson. “The remaining are either transferring from D11 schools, or their previous school was not provided on the application.”

D2’s Aspire Online Academy has had a similar impact. “We’ve had some parents opt for it,” said Ryder. “I wouldn’t say that we are noticing it in a massive way at all.”.

While school districts are adapting curriculum and instructional methods to address a post-COVID classroom, they’re also working to make up for lost ground. The interruptions and uncertainty of last year were reflected in the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test results.

According to a recently released report from the Colorado Department of Education: “The COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on many aspects of education last year, including reducing or disrupting learning opportunities for some students, schools and districts.

“Due to reduced in-person instructional time, some districts may have had to adjust the content for students, and it’s likely the impact of these learning disruptions was uneven within districts and across the state.”

The results revealed a decrease in performance from 2019 to 2021 across all student groups and subject areas. For districts and teachers, that means teachers must help students catch up to their grade levels..

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Principal Charley Ryder says teachers are ready for the new school year.

“We have a few different strategies for multiple subject areas,” said Ryder. “In math, for example, we’re using a program that actually aligns with our curriculum where we can give pre-assessments before we jump into a new unit that will actually give teachers really specific information on what gaps may exist and knowledge that students need to learn that new unit. That will give them information on what they need to reteach for the whole group, and then what can I maybe reteach to smaller groups of students to help prepare them for that grade-level content. We’re really excited about using that program that is truly focused on pre-assessment and targeting whatever needs exist.”

Not only will staff focus on assessing knowledge for incoming students, but also on addressing any shortcomings the student may have. 

“For reading, as a school, one of our focus areas is really refining our intervention processes,” said Ryder. “Intervention is when we take students and use data to put them in groups based on instructional needs. We’ve always had really strong processes for that, but we’re looking at adding even more layers so that our data can be even more real-time. We regroup every six weeks, which means that kids are consistently receiving instruction that they need and it’s always data-driven. We’re looking at some ways to gather data on a daily basis so every single day is as purposeful as can be,” he said

While the upcoming school year has its share of uncertainties, teachers are just happy to have their students back. “Everyone’s just so happy to have kids back in the building,” said Ryder. “After last year when we didn’t get to see all of their faces every day, we just really missed them. Teachers across the board have been really looking forward to having them back in their rooms.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.