SOUTHERN COLORADO — A report summarizing survey responses from 140 school districts has been released by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative. The Colorado School District Needs Inventory had around 78% of all districts in the state respond, which serve nearly 90% of all public school students.
In the Pikes Peak Region, 20 districts responded, one of which was Academy District 20. "It shows us where we're doing well, and it shows us also where we really need to do more work," said Allison Cortez, the chief communication officer for Academy District 20.
The report spans a variety of topics, one of which is device and connectivity needs now that students and teachers must migrate out of the classroom and into their homes. Even though the needs have declined since the spring, there's about 30,000 students still lacking access throughout Colorado. "This will forever be a pivot point in education for how we can do things differently and meet needs more broadly," said Cortez.
In the Pikes Peak Region, 7,744 students do not have devices, and 3,388 do not have sufficient internet access. However, the connectivity figure is around a 10% decrease from the number in the spring.
Academy District 20 earmarked a large chunk of their COVID-19 relief dollars for electronic devices. "Right before the Thanksgiving holiday, we received over 200 pallets of Dell laptops, and we were able to get those out to our families. And so, I think there's something like 11,000 new computers floating around in District 20 family homes right now," said Cortez.
Another concern raised in the report surrounds staffing in schools. The majority of schools said they do not have a sufficient number of substitute teachers available, while teacher mental health was voted the top priority pertaining to instructors. Respondents also voiced concerns regarding burnout and turnover among educators.
One substitute teacher in Colorado Springs is Paula Page, who has worked in education for decades. She is filling in for another teacher who is on maternity leave, and plans to work until the end of the school year. "This year has been the iceberg, as compared to the tip of the iceberg last spring. Because we're really tasked with not just finishing a year, but making sure that we make up ground from last year, as well as meet the curriculum needs, teach the standards, get the mastery this year as if the children were here in-person... The fatigue and the stress and the frustration has been much greater, but the teachers who are true teachers have stepped up, they have mastered it," said Page.
Cortez said Academy District 20 just launched a substitute teacher campaign to build a new pool of people ready to enter the classroom during a pandemic. So far, there are around 100 new people in their pipeline. However, because the district has entirely transitioned to e-learning, they actually do not need any extra substitute teachers at the moment. "We have a large sub pool. We literally have about 600 people in our sub pool. But a lot of those subs are retired teachers, they're in the high risk group of people who are susceptible to COVID. So, when we would need a sub, because somebody would go out for a quarantine, and we would pick up a phone, that person on the other end said 'I'm not comfortable coming in that building,'" said Cortez.
Specific to the Pikes Peak Region, districts are working on combating fatigue felt by their staff. Even though locally there are similar challenges that can be found across Colorado, our region said they have seen positive change, like personalized support for students.
Academy District 20 has organized days dedicated to teacher self-care, and even groups working on how to manage stress. "We're givers in education. But when we do that, that means we might not be taking care of ourselves. So, we're definitely seeing and hearing from our teachers that they're doing their best, they're there for their students, but you can see that on their face. They're tired," said Cortez.
In the survey conducted this spring, student emotional support was chosen as the top need related to pupils. However, in this survey conducted in October, more respondents said K-3 reading loss was their biggest concern.
A common trend among all the school districts comes from families concerned about the virus, forcing them to choose remote learning, with some opting out of school completely.
News5 asked the Pikes Peak Education Association about the findings regarding devices and connectivity, along with teacher's mental health.
Device and connectivity needs
While some districts ARE able to provide devices (laptops, iPads, tablets, etc) and/or Hotspots to most of their students, not all students have access to both devices and internet. A student may have a device, but may not have a reliable (or any) internet connection to meet the needs of daily zooms and uploading/downloading capabilities. Specifically our students in low income and rural neighborhoods suffer the most when it comes to access to devices and especially to connectivity. Additionally, when you consider multiple siblings and parents attempting to access the internet at the same time for remote learning and working from home, connectivity issues are increasingly challenging.
Workforce and staffing needs
Most of our districts in the Pikes Peak region are experiencing the challenges described in this bullet point. Resignations and leaves of absences are on the rise due to teaching in COVID-19 environments and there is a significant shortage of substitute teachers. Personally, I am fortunate to work in a building where administrators are consistently concerned for the mental health of the staff and students, always asking how we're doing/what we need/how they can support us. Sadly this is not the case everywhere. Educators are overwhelmed with the risks of teaching in COVID-19 environments and ever changing schedules/responsibilities related to positive cases and quarantines. Ultimately, educators love their students and are doing everything they can to meet the educational needs of the students, often times risking their own health and emotional well being to do so.
In terms of combating teacher fatigue, the biggest concern for members of the Pikes Peak Education Association is providing a safe environment for teaching and learning. We all know that instruction is most effective when we're in the classroom. However, in an environment where positive cases and exposure to positive cases is forcing staff and students into quarantine every day, our Association believes the SAFEST environment for learning is in a remote setting. It is not ideal, but it is the safest in terms of keeping our staff and students healthy and this is how the fatigue can at least be minimized. From there, prioritizing the social and emotional well being of staff and students helps to combat teacher fatigue. When employees feel valued, performance improves and turnover is reduced.
CLICK HERE to read the entire report.