A line of cars stretched around the block, as Littleton Public Schools staff and volunteers distributed laptops to families outside district headquarters near downtown Littleton.
At the front of the line on April 6, Beth Best, head of the Littleton Public Schools Foundation, signed out the Chromebooks, sending the district's youngsters back home with the tools to stay connected in a time of isolation.
With classroom learning canceled for the rest of the school year and the district switching to an all-online curriculum in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chromebooks are vital for families without one to devote to schoolwork, but even families with extra computers find them useful.
“They're pre-loaded with all the right software, and they've got content controls,” said Best from behind a face mask. “It's a lot easier than commandeering the family computer.”
All told, the district passed out more than 3,000 of the laptops to kids in the younger grades, Best said. Kids in upper grades already had school-issued laptops.
The district also passed out nearly 50 wifi hotspots, paid for by the foundation, to families who don't have internet connections at home.
“People are being so graceful and kind,” Best said. “Kids need these computers to learn, but we're focused on mental health, too. They need to see their friends and teachers.”
LPS students last sat in a classroom on March 13, before spring break began a week early as efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 ramped up. Originally scheduled to return by the beginning of April, the closure was later extended until April 30.
Then, on April 3, the other shoe dropped: LPS schools would stay closed for the rest of the school year, as would most of the state's districts.
In place of classroom learning, the district has plunged headlong into online curricula, scurrying to meet the needs of kids from kindergarten through senior year.
“It was pretty overwhelming at first,” said LPS Superintendent Brian Ewert. “We've never been put in a situation like this, but the collaboration we've seen has been amazing.”
The tricky part: making sure all kids have equal access. In a classroom, all kids are sharing the same space, Ewert said, but learning from home can exacerbate differences between learning environments.
“Some kids are sitting in their own rooms on their own computers, and some are crowded at a kitchen table with everyone else in the family,” Ewert said. “Not every home is conducive to online learning.”
'Beautiful in a hard time'
Many students' home lives are in turmoil, said Amy Lengyel, an English language development teacher at Centennial Academy, an elementary school.
Some parents are balancing suddenly working from home and overseeing their kids' education. Some parents work service-sector jobs that are considered essential, forcing them to leave kids at home or scramble for child care. Some parents have been laid off, and are struggling with food insecurity.
“At the same time, we're seeing the community step up,” Lengyel said.
Lengyel, other parents and teachers have personally delivered laptops, school supplies and groceries to students' homes.
“I'm touched by how willing and open parents are with each other,” Lengyel said. “Everyone is offering to help, and everyone has something to offer, even if it's just an encouraging word. It's beautiful in a hard time.”
Lessons, especially for little kids, are light-touch. While most grades start the day with Google Hangouts videoconference meetings, the youngest grades are given lists of activities to prevent youngsters from staring at screens all day. Even high-school grades seldom exceed a few hours of work a day.
Online learning is going pretty well so far, said Jared Ewy, the dad of students ages 6, 10 and 12.
“It's kind of cool to be dropped into your kids' lives and see how they do in school,” Ewy said. “I'm getting a better sense of where they're at on skills, and what I can help with.”
The new framework is bringing about an “erosion of pretensions and conventions,” Ewy said.
“The teachers are finding themselves and loosening up more,” Ewy said. “My kindergartner's teacher is raising baby chicks and giving us updates. They're finding new ways to teach. My only concern is wondering whether my kids will have the mental wherewithal to sit still in a classroom for seven hours a day again after this.”
'Trying to stay positive'
For older kids with robust social lives and activity-filled schedules, however, the new paradigm is something of a letdown.
Kelsey Weiser, a senior at Heritage High School, said she was looking forward to this semester for years.
“You build it up in your head,” said Weiser, 17. “Prom, graduation, all the crazy stuff you do with your friends. It's all been taken away.”
Now, though, prom is canceled, and Weiser's red prom dress sits unused in a box beneath her desk. She isn't getting her hopes that graduation could be rescheduled for summer. A lifelong soccer player, she won't get the chance to make up for last year's playoff loss, or to celebrate at the team's senior night.
“It's a disappointment, but there's nothing I can do about it,” Weiser said.
She's trying to make the most of quarantine. In addition to about three hours a day of schoolwork, she's reading, painting and working out. She's also looking forward to this fall, when she starts classes at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“I'm trying to stay positive,” she said. “People are sick and dying. I haven't lost anyone. I can't dwell on the bad. After all, we're part of history. We'll be the graduating class that never graduated.”
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