DENVER (KDVR) – Schools long-used to in-person classes have been forced to try new tactics to keep students safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and some are turning to an old concept to make online learning more successful.
Thousands of students in the Adams 12 school district are getting a boost in their remote education with the help of learning pods, a years-old concept that physically brings students together in a common space with adult support.
“It’s a lot more helpful because we get to be with someone who could help us in our classroom,” said 10-year-old Christina Chavez, a 5th grader at Hillcrest Elementary School. “At home, our parents could (help me), but sometimes they couldn’t understand all the stuff because it’s different from what they learned.”
Chavez is among nearly 4,000 students, district-wide, who participate in an Adams 12 learning pod. The pods allow students — who otherwise would be attending remote, online school from their own home due to COVID-19 precautions — to attend a socially-distanced classroom with support from a school staff member.
“Learning pods offered an opportunity for students to come in and be able to connect with adults in the buildings, connect with other students,” said Stephanie Taylor, Hillcrest’s principal. “That social aspect has been the best part of this whole situation.”
Who benefits the most?
Taylor said the pods, which are located in typical classrooms, are especially helpful for children with two working parents, parents who speak a second language and children who do not otherwise have access to a computer or tablet.
Staff members who may have otherwise been displaced from their typical workflow due to COVID-19 challenges – like bus drivers, lunch workers, and others – offer support in the classrooms while children attend online classes, with their regular teacher teaching remotely.
Across the district, there are 790 students on waiting lists for the pods, according to a school spokesperson, Christina Dahmen.
“The main reason that kids are here is for the connectivity. Some families don’t have WiFi connection in our area. Or, they get breakfast and lunch every day,” Taylor said, acknowledging the more than 81% of students at the school that qualify for free or reduced lunches. “They have an adult with them, so they are safe. … I think this is an amazing solution.”
Despite the early success, the district says the learning pods ended on Sept. 23, 2020, as the district recently voted to allow elementary school level, grades K-5, to attend in-person learning while middle and high school students will move to a hybrid model. Full-time remote learning will still be available for families.
Learning from experience
While remote, online learning is a new concept for many, Heather O’Mara, the founder and CEO of the online school system, HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op, said she has had years of experience helping students overcome remote learning challenges.
“Students need support. They need guidance … the students are looking for that connection with each other as well as with the adult in the classroom,” she said.
Fifteen years ago, the concept of going to school online was a new opportunity for non-traditional students to learn at their own pace, but when O’Mara launched her school’s online classes in 2005, she noticed there were some barriers for children who had working parents or unreliable internet at home.
Eighty-two percent of her current students qualify for a free or reduced lunch program, and 12% have experienced homelessness. Nearly half are English Language Learners.
“So, the concept was, how do we bring community leaders together to start what we called, ‘learning centers,’ where kids physically go to a location? They get their instruction online, but they have face to face support, so if they’re struggling with their school — just like when your kids are struggling with their homework — they can get support at their center,” she said.
Cynthia Torres, who is a sophomore at HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op, said she finds the online classes, coupled with a physically accessible adult located at her learning center, to be beneficial.
“It’s also helpful at home when I have no one around, and I can call a teacher, and they’ll try to help me,” she said.
Her mother, Melissa, said the extra support comes in handy while she is working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I don’t have the capacity to be able to stop what I’m doing to be able to help her,” Melissa Torres said.
When the pandemic hit and forced school buildings to close, the HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-Op distributed 600 computers and 400 webcams from PCs for People to surveyed families who said they didn’t have access to a home computer. The school also distributed 1,077 laptops to enrolled middle and high school students for the 2021 semester.
O’Mara warned there are always challenges with technology to overcome, but students and adults can learn to be flexible, too.
“I think we have expectations that it’s always going to be perfect, and it’s not. And we have to give each other that grace and space,” O’Mara said.
HOPE Online Learning Academy continues to accept new students and will keep small amounts of students in shared spaces, even when social distancing restrictions are loosened in the future.
Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.