Seventh-grader Shai Kanow listens to her father, Telluride Mountain School art teacher Daniel Kanow, instruct online. (Photo courtesy of Joanna Kanow)

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, last week Gov. Jared Polis ordered all public and private schools in Colorado to close through at least April 17. The Telluride School District, along with the Telluride Mountain School (TMS), have been closed since March 16.

“We’ve had to MacGyver an educational system that was running pretty smoothly. Teachers stepped up to the plate, and kids are responding,” Superintendent Mike Gass said. “We definitely have some tweaks we need to make, but considering we did it all within about 72 hours, we’ve done pretty well.

“I’m hearing that we are probably not going to re-enter buildings this year, which makes me sad because school is sometimes the best and only positive thing in a kid’s world.”    

TMS Head of School Andy Shoff said that he started thinking about a school closure a month ago and has been receiving good guidance from the Association of Colorado Independent Schools for implementing a “continuity of education plan.”

“At every stage, there are adjustments that need to be made that are fairly substantial, and we adjust,” Shoff said. “We’ve learned that less is more. Overloading kids with work might work for a sick day, but it’s not going to work for the long-term. This is very different from a home school. It’s distance learning.”

Computer devices were handed out last week to students in the district who needed one.

“We’re still working through some connectivity issues,” Gass said. “I’ve acquired some hot spots from vendors to disperse. For the most part, I think kids are doing well.”

TMS fifth- and sixth-graders were given Chromebooks to take home, while students seventh grade and above were already required to have their own devices.

“On day one we started with synchronous — real-time, shared, online — learning in all of our grades,” Shoff said.

TMS teachers are primarily using Zoom and Google Meet as teaching platforms, and a consolidated school interface called Black Baud for students and parents. All TMS Zoom instruction is public, which not only serves teacher oversight, but creates a welcoming feeling.

“I’m learning to pop my head into the virtual classroom,” Shoff said. “And I’m encouraging people to pick up the phone and call or set up a Zoom or a FaceTime instead of putting all their thoughts into one-way written communication.”

Telluride Elementary School Principal Susan Altman said her teachers strive to balance paper-and-pencil instruction, online platform learning, and play while responding to feedback from parents. With guidance from the district’s IT department, elementary school instruction is provided through iReady (math and reading) and RAZ Kids (reading) with Zoom being the most popular platform for video conferencing. 

“Teaching your own child can be very difficult, and we are working on giving the adults involved in this process support on how to deliver instruction (schedules, transitions, time frames, etc.) for success,” she said.

As teachers and students across the district have been making adjustments, a routine is slowly falling into place. 

“We are using Schoology, which is like a Facebook for school,” Telluride Middle/High School Principal Sara Kimball explained. “Every teacher has a page where they can upload information, assignments, resources and students can submit assignments and message their teachers.”

At the public school, state requirements for contact hours among teachers and students are now measured when students log into the learning management system.

“Online attendance is probably as good or better than in-person attendance was over the last couple of weeks,” Gass said.   

Last week, state officials suspended Colorado Measures of Academic Success testing, which freed up an additional three weeks of instruction.

“It sounds like we’re going to be held harmless this year around achievement, assessment and school accreditation,” Gass said. “The state is trying to be reasonable with their expectations.”

SAT and PSAT tests are also canceled. The College Board will release a schedule for AP testing on April 3, which, Gass said, “will set the course for the rest of the year.”

Gass, along with school board members, are considering canceling spring break and ending the school year early, when the community may be emerging from the shelter-in-place order and the weather improves. In an effort to collect input on how the final two months of school might be, Gass sent a survey out to the school community on Monday.

Shoff said TMS has not yet made changes to the calendar, but it’s quite possible that officials will.

It’s feasible, if not likely, that completing online classes through the end of the year will be adequate for students to be promoted to the next grade and for seniors to graduate.

“Our seniors are going to be in good shape,” Gass said. “We’re three-fourths of the way through the year so the hay’s in the barn for a lot of these classes.”

As for graduation, Gass admited that the last thing he wants to do is mail seniors diplomas as a capstone to their 13-year academic career.

“It may mean they get a diploma from a guy with rubber gloves on, but at least we’ll make that hand-off,” he said. 

Kimball agreed that there needs to be some kind of graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020.

“Both staff and students miss the social interactions and connecting with one another,” she said. “I feel for the Class of 2020. They deserve a graduation, and we love celebrating our seniors.”

TMS is working with officials from the International Baccalaureate program who will finalize plans by the end of the month around expectations for final exams, a challenging cornerstone of the curriculum. 

“Most of our students have the majority of their internal work done or nearly done,” Shoff explained. “They’re encouraged to continue with their assignment submissions and deadlines, which are all quite feasible from distance learning.”

While both Shoff and Gass agree that their school communities have been supportive, their teachers innovative, and students and families adaptive, much of scholastic assessment is based on student-teacher interaction, which remains a challenge.

“We are in unprecedented times,” Gass said. “The magnitude of this event is going to exceed the time we have left in this school year.

A year from now, if we end up taking tests to measure it, I would predict that we will shine again because we kept the pace and have done the best we can.”