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Back to School 2020

Back to School

December 22, 2020

Educators have found themselves adapting and working in settings that have distanced them from students and changed how they teach. Here, they share their thoughts and insights from the past six months.

The end of the 2019-20 school year was like nothing anyone had ever experienced — until the start of 2020-21 school year. Beginning in March, policymakers and education leaders around the state decided to close schools to stem the spread of COVID-19. Most schools began operating virtually, many for the first time. The return to school this fall has looked different in different communities, but in Colorado, many educators and students also returned to classes online or through a hybrid in-person/online model.

Here, with the first six months of the pandemic behind them, educators reflect on what they’ve learned as they’ve looked for new ways to teach and connect in a changed world. 

Cary Smith ’09

Principal, Greeley Central High School
Master of Arts, Educational Leadership

Cary Smith has worked at Greeley Central High School, the city’s second-largest high school, for 22 years. But the pandemic means that 2020 has been a year of firsts: The first virtual staff meeting, the first virtual town hall, the first time teachers had to navigate teaching at home.

The beginning of remote learning at Greeley Central was “death by a thousand cuts,” Smith says. The school, which had not previously had a remote-learning program, extended its spring break in March; eventually, it became clear that no one would be returning to the building as policymakers tightened restrictions. The school and district leaders worked to make sure every student had access to Chromebooks and the technology they needed as all classes went virtual.

Over the summer, Smith had to reconfigure the school’s schedule several times to accommodate changing policy guidance. The school opened this fall with a hybrid model: High schoolers learn at home three days a week and attend school two days a week on a rotating schedule. Things like the first day assembly, the homecoming parade, sports and dances are still on hold. “Those things have been hard for students and staff. They were a big part of our culture,” Smith says.

Cary Smith

“My approach has been: We have to do less, we have to do it better, and we have to know why we’re doing it. Choose fewer things — you can’t cram it all in — but choose wisely, know why you’re doing those things, and do them really well.”

The changes to teaching and learning have also been profound. Some students are babysitting, or don’t have strong internet access in their homes, as they try to manage classes. Smith says he is concerned about gaps that may have emerged this year. “Some of the deficits, we don’t realize it right now. Kids are going to have missed things.”

But, he says, there has been a silver lining: “This forced us to look not only at what we’re teaching, but are kids learning it, do they have access to it? Have I laid out folders in a way that makes sense to them? It has forced us to think more about learning than about teaching,” Smith says. He says his teachers have had to be flexible and rely on one another as they figured out how to truly engage students online.

“We’re steeped in 140 years of tradition. It’s very cool,” he says. “But it can be a fault if we’re like, that’s not how we do things here. We need to examine that. There are different ways to teach and different ways to learn.”

Renée Welch

Director, UNC Center for Career Readiness

UNC’s K-12 Educator Employment Days is the largest in Colorado, giving recruiters, administrators and educators-to-be the chance to mingle and meet one another in person.

In 2020, however, the fair was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Renée Welch and her team at the UNC Center for Career Readiness had to look for ways to remotely connect employers and people hoping to work in schools.

Now, the Center for Career Readiness is relying more on a platform called Handshake to connect prospective educators and employers virtually.

Welch says that there is something lost when recruiters and candidates can’t meet in person. Her hope is that 2021’s fair can take place in person once again.

But she sees some upsides to virtual recruiting: “It might enable people from more geographic locations to be able to recruit UNC students,” she says. “It makes me wonder if we might, moving forward, have a blend of in-person and virtual events.”

The American Association of Employment in Education has not yet released its annual supply and demand report, which helps Welch pinpoint changes to the employment market in education each year. Overall, people graduating in 2021 are entering a challenging job market. “Since May, it’s been really hard,” she says.

Renee Welch

“All districts will have students from different socioeconomic groups and demographics that have experienced COVID in a way that is disproportionate to people in groups with more privilege and access. That work cannot be separate from the work of an educator.”

But, she says, the demand for teachers and educators has been great and growing stronger over the past decade. In many cases, there are more positions than candidates — so those hoping to work in education may not face as many obstacles finding work during the pandemic-triggered economic recession.

“Hopefully, that means people can have some of their values met and have some choice in terms of the districts and schools they’re interested in working for,” Welch says.

And, she says, students and educators will develop a whole new set of skills due to the switch to online learning and teaching.

Dayana Fauver ’18

First Grade Teacher, Sixth Avenue Elementary, Aurora Public Schools
Bachelor of Arts, Center for Urban Education

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived midway through Dayana Fauver’s first year teaching first grade at Sixth Avenue Elementary in Aurora. An extended spring break quickly gave way to the reality that the entire fourth quarter would be conducted online and spent reviewing previously taught content.

Fauver’s biggest concern was for students at her school whose families were more transient or experiencing homelessness. “When they come to school, it’s a safe haven; there’s some stability there,” she says.

Aurora Public Schools and school communities worked together to contact students and their families and ensure they had access to essentials, like food, in addition to the information and technology they needed for virtual school.

Dayana Fauver

“Stay positive. It will be OK. Be open to learning new things. Find what works for you and in your classroom.”

Of the 21 students who had come to her class in person, about 13 showed up online most days during that fourth quarter. Language was an obstacle for some families. Others moved during the pandemic. Spotty internet access and shared devices were also common challenges.

The transition to online learning was new for Fauver, who described herself as “theatrical” and “really happy” as an in-person teacher. But, she has found ways to engage her students, including doing science experiments online.

The fall of 2020 presented a new challenge: Last year, she knew her students before the transition to online learning happened, and the first graders had more than half a year in school. This year’s first graders are new to school and her classroom.

As of early October, Fauver was preparing for a return to school that involved learning yet another new way of teaching: A hybrid model where she simultaneously teaches some students in person and others remotely. She was cautiously excited: concerned about safety during the pandemic but overall confident in her school’s plans, which mean students are in small groups.

Overall, she says of online teaching, “it’s a ton of extra work.” Prepping things and learning how to do things virtually can be a challenge. She also has four children at home, so juggling their schedules and hers has made for a hectic fall.

But there have been some silver linings to the transitions, she says, including a stronger sense of camaraderie between teachers. “We’re not in this by ourselves; we’re in this as a team,” she says.

And, she says, “we have more of a grasp of how to teach virtually than in the spring. If you looked at what we were doing then versus now, you’d see it’s changed in a positive way.”

“This is the new normal now,” she says. “Even if we go back in-person, I’m still going to continue to use a lot more of the tech.”


Matthew Farber, Ed.D.

Assistant Professor, Educational Technology
Coordinator for K-12 and Secondary Education

In Matthew Farber’s classes at UNC, undergraduate and graduate student teachers-to-be might be using anchor.fm to create a podcast they can share with their classmates. Or they might be tracking their avatar’s progress in Classcraft, a program that depicts learning as a quest.

Farber’s education classes — including a course focused on teaching remotely — model the sort of technology-facilitated approach to learning he hopes teachers might bring into their own classrooms as more and more learning happens online.

Farber, a regular contributor to the popular education site Edutopia.org and author of an upcoming book on games and social-emotional learning, says that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed schools and classes online for the first time, many adopted what he has heard referred to as “emergency remote teaching” or “pandemic pedagogy.” That is, their classes were being offered online, but the educators offering them didn’t have skills or background in maximizing the strengths of online school.

Mathew Farber

"You don’t need to be a pro at online tools. For remote instruction, start with tech that you are comfortable using."

That’s not the fault of teachers or schools, he says — teaching remotely requires a different approach and set of skills, and the events of last spring were unprecedented, to say the least. And teaching online is often more work than teaching in person. “Teachers have always brought work home with them,” he says. But now, “the school day never ends.”

But Farber believes there are opportunities to build on the strengths of technology in the classroom as educators get more used to working in an online environment.

“We don’t want education to backslide, to be more direct instruction, less hands-on experiential learning,” he says. Instead, educators can focus on learning about and implementing pedagogical approaches like flipped learning or project-based learning that maximize the time students have with teachers and promote students’ autonomy.

“We learn by making, sharing and constructing something that is personally meaningful. Really good educational technology is informed by this idea.”

He adds that it’s important not to get caught up in things that are engaging but superficial rather than focusing on more substantive online learning approaches. 

“There are a lot of missed opportunities if we spend too much time creating decorative classrooms.”

Farber is particularly interested in the potential of game-based learning and technology to support social-emotional well-being. During the pandemic, the emotional wellness of students is top of mind for many educators. “It’s important to put students’ social-emotional learning first,” he says, adding that there are resources, including a set approved by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) that teachers can use to promote well-being virtually.

He says teachers and schools need to also be mindful of access and new equity issues that have arisen due to the pandemic. “Design for students in the margins, and you’re designing for everyone. The important thing will be to keep building access,” he says. “I’d like to think this will prepare us in the future.” UNC

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By Jaclyn Zubrzycki
Photos By Woody Myers