For Denver Public School students, a return to normalcy is only a few days away. On August 23rd, DPS will resume K-12 classes ‒ in real classrooms. No more remote learning for more than 90,000 DPS students. But ‘the ghost at the banquet,’ the pandemic that disrupted life all around the world, is not only still here, but now has a new relative, the Delta variant, that may also be present when the school bell rings.
The start of school will also be the first school day in the DPS system for new Superintendent Alex Marrero, who took over the top job in Denver after serving in the same capacity in New Rochelle, New York, a New York City suburb. “It was incredible, a very desirable place to be,” he said of the job he left behind. But it’s not that job that’s now his focus nor where he’s channeling his energy.
Marrero, a New Yorker down to his marrow, is in the first stage of acclimation to a whole new environment. He said he’s been drinking out of the proverbial fire hose as he tries to absorb everything he can about DPS, its history, culture, challenges, and anything else about the district that may fall in his lap.
But few challenges loom as large as getting a true assessment of what the pandemic took away from young minds, both academically and socially. “There are parallels,” he said, “that are common to all districts.” Some students ‒ he calls them ‘scholars’ ‒ won’t be academically impacted by the virus. But there are others, he acknowledged, “who’ve regressed tremendously.”
Despite DPS purchasing thousands of computers and internet connectivity for students to study remotely, a lot of students simply checked out or checked in only intermittently. While the start of school will bring all students back to the classroom, teachers will probably determine early on those who logged on and kept pace and those who didn’t.
While Marrero has the job of overseeing Colorado’s largest school district, dealing with the sum of its parts goes to people like Vanessa Diaz Trussell, who’s taking on a new job as Principal of Swansea Elementary School. “It feels daunting to attempt measuring exactly what our students have lost during the pandemic,” she said. “Rather than looking to remediate lost learning, we need to focus on how we will accelerate learning. We will have to know where our students are and that will include baseline assessments.”
Diaz Trussel was a classroom teacher last school year during the district’s fits and starts when the pandemic allowed schools to reopen. Along with her colleagues, they created new classroom tools and techniques to help children adjust to a once in a lifetime event. “Our approach was to really get to know our students,” she said, while also addressing their emotional needs. New approaches included things she called ‘cozy corners,’ quiet spots in classrooms for those times when a student needed to escape.
Teachers also budgeted personal time to spend with certain students to not only talk to them but also to listen. Diaz Trussell believes in this approach and plans to continue with it while, at the same time, “being mindful to demonstrate empathy…rather than feeling sympathy for them.” The classroom veteran believes that feeling sorry for students can lead to “lowered expectations and excuse-making.”
While Diaz Trussell believes that students who may have fallen behind as a result of COVID can, over time, climb back to where they should be. Others who’ve shared the same vocation, do not share the same optimism. Retired primary school educator Evelyn DeHerrera Armijo believes the virus robbed students in Denver and everywhere else of essential classroom time that not even one-on-one mentoring may fail to overcome.
“Some students need refresher classes when they go back after summer vacation,” said DeHerrera Armijo. “Can you imagine 18 months?” At this stage of a young person’s educational journey, she said, lost classroom time can be devastating, especially for some students who were already slipping through the cracks. “I can remember when some of my students were out for several days. Some got their assignments in and some didn’t.” Individual parents or even close relatives of a student, she firmly believes, are absolutely crucial for getting these young minds back on track.
DeHerrera is not completely pessimistic about a student’s ability to bounce back. She also doesn’t hold those students responsible who, through no fault of their own, ‘checked out’ when the virus halted classes. But, she said, it will take a real commitment from teachers, parents, and the young person, too, to gain back what the virus stole. In a word, said the veteran bilingual teacher, “It will take ‘ganas.’” Translation: Desire.
Denver’s new school superintendent understands the educational challenge the virus has left in its wake as well as the very real possibility that the emerging Delta variant could deliver an even more devastating aftershock. “I am one hundred percent concerned,” he said. “We need to reposition our (educational) targets,” Marrero said. “We can reimagine how we look at education in the future.”
But the self-described ‘kid from the Bronx’ said he did not come to Denver to be a caretaker. “Nothing is stopping me from knocking on doors,” if it will get parents involved. Marrero, a lifelong New York Yankees and New York Giants fan, has a game plan that accompanies his confidence that DPS students who may have fallen behind can be brought up to proficiency. Once back in the classroom, he said, he believes frontline teachers can do the job. “It should not take more than a year.”
There is one thing off the new superintendent’s ‘to do,’ list. Marrero had planned on conferring with the DPS teacher’s union on vaccinating against the virus before the start of school. But that issue was taken off the table when, earlier this month, the district implemented a 2021-22 mask policy that made them mandatory for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors on school grounds. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also included mandatory vaccines for all city employees, contractors, and many non city workers in at-risk roles within Denver, including school teachers and staff at DPS as well as private schools.
While there may be some grumbling about masks, teachers, staff, and students in more than 50 DPS schools might also have something to say about returning to schools that still do not have air conditioning. That problem, said the district, will not be addressed for at least two years.