Colorado’s K-12 system leaders detail seismic shifts in education in “State of Reopening” event

Written by: Leslie Colwell
Date Posted: November 20, 2020

Eight months into the Coronavirus pandemic and nearing the end of a second semester that has seen a dramatically altered learning landscape for Colorado kids, we are at an inflection point. It’s important to pause and reflect on COVID’s impact on education, and to think about what might be possible in what remains of this school year, and in school years beyond, for young people who have experienced significant learning disruption.

Last week the Children’s Campaign, together with the Colorado Education Initiative, convened almost 200 educators, district administrators, education advocates and policymakers to discuss the state of reopening education during this pandemic. Across two virtual panels featuring system leaders from rural and urban/suburban contexts, panelists explained their hard lessons learned, their proud accomplishments, and their bold ideas for moving forward.

One key takeaway was schools are finding ways to get the job done and there are compelling examples of hustle, adaptability and innovation. However, overall, system leaders are still struggling to meet the needs of students, mental health needs have multiplied, and most concerning, opportunity gaps have widened.

Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes noted as she closed the three-hour event, “Everything in education that we have been putting band-aids on, maybe they were cracks in our system… all of those cracks are now chasms.” She provided examples of inequities that have become even more apparent – the dilapidated state of school buildings and ventilation systems, the unevenness of access to broadband across the state, and the challenges with workforce shortages and low levels of resources – themes that were detailed by panelists in their comments.

A seismic shift is taking place that will change public education for generations to come. “My gut is, we’re not going back to pre-pandemic learning. There are pros and cons to that,” said Superintendent Karen Quanbeck of Clear Creek School District. “We’ll never go back to where we were, and if we do, shame on us,” echoed Superintendent Michael Thomas of D-11 in Colorado Springs.

Looking ahead, education leaders acknowledged how much support students will need to overcome academic losses they’ve suffered, perhaps with extended learning time, and the urgent need to tend to the social-emotional well-being and mental health of both students and school staff. As districts have worked quickly to prop up a range of learning modes for students, they see opportunities to build on these different instructional models to personalize learning and meet the needs of every child.

The Children’s Campaign knows the role that policy plays in either promoting or inhibiting best practice and innovation at the local level, and we continue to seek out the perspectives of those on the ground to understand the challenges and realities of this moment, at the same time we are adamant that our system can do better, especially for the kids who need a resilient education system the most. We want to extend a BIG thank you to our partners at CEI and our panelists who candidly shared the real barriers and opportunities of this moment: Superintendents Karen Quanbeck of Clear Creek School District, George Welsh of Cañon City School District, Darrin Peppard of West Grand School District, Bree Jones of La Veta School District, Michael Thomas of D-11 School District, Chris Gdowski of Adams 12 School District, Diana Sirko of Mesa-51 School District, as well as David Singer, Founder and Executive director of University Preparatory Schools in Denver.

Missed the event? Watch the recording of the two panels and Commissioner Anthes’s closing comments. You can also read the Colorado Sun’s coverage of the event here, and a reflection from CEI’s President and CEO Rebecca Holmes here.

Leslie Colwell

About Leslie Colwell

Leslie Colwell serves as the Vice President of K-12 Education Initiatives, leading the Campaign’s work to improve education in the state of Colorado. Before joining the Children’s Campaign in August of 2014, Leslie worked to facilitate partnerships and produce policy agreements, especially in the area of education as an Associate at The Keystone Center. Her professional experience includes working as Legislative Director for State Senator Mike Johnston, managing his education policy portfolio (including his office’s work on HB12-1238, Colorado’s READ Act, and SB13-033, ASSET), and directing a policy fellowship for educators for three summers. Leslie has also worked on Teach For America’s alumni team, and before that taught 6th grade Math and Earth Science as a TFA corps member at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles. She currently serves on the board of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy & Research Organization (CLLARO) and on the steering committee of the Colorado Afterschool Partnership.