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What are 'learning pods' and how will they work? 7 questions with a Colorado school superintendent

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Posted at 5:17 PM, Aug 20, 2020

THORNTON, Colo. — The Adams 12 Five Star Schools district, like others across the Front Range, will start the school year with remote learning on Aug. 27. The district plans to stay remote until at least late September, when it will evaluate whether to return to in-person classes.

But Adams 12 students won't be entirely online, even early in the year. We talked with Superintendent Chris Gdowski about the district's back-to-school plan and the challenge of what's sure to be a unique school year.

Watch our interview with Gdowski:

What are 'learning pods' and how will they work? 7 questions with a Colorado school superintendent

Here's a transcript:

Denver7: What's the Adams 12 plan to restart school this month?

Chris Gdowski: We have a remote learning plan, with a couple of twists. Most students throughout our entire system will have this in-person, day in and day out, remote learning experience where they use the Florida Virtual Academy curriculum that will serve as the foundation, that our teachers will then supplement and enrich.

Then we’re also going to have these learning pods, where we have students — elementary and middle school age primarily, some at the high school, too — where students will be able to come in groups of 10-15. It gets bigger as students get older, in terms of class size. But they’ll be in a safe environment, physically distanced. They’ll be able to access internet. They’ll have members of our support staff, whether they are paraprofessionals who work in classrooms to support teachers, or before and after school staff that often work with students to get homework done after school.

We feel like it’s really a nice model that allows small class size, good distancing, reduces the scope of quarantine if we have a positive case emerge. And allows online instruction to be a consistent piece that happens each and every day.

Denver7: Why is it important for certain students to still have in-person instruction?

Chris Gdowski: We believe especially for some of our students with disabilities and special needs that they need to have that in-person interaction with an educator to really understand the content, to be able to repeat it in the most effective ways, for the modeling of the teacher to work best. That in-person experience seems to be for most of our students and families to allow them to make much greater progress than in an online space.

Denver7: How difficult is it to plan for learning pods and remote classes?

Chris Gdowski: It’s a huge logistical challenge — no two ways about that. Those cohorts aren’t always neat and tidy groups of 12 at every first-grade class at every school. So trying to match the right staff person to the right school and the right grade level is the work in front of us now. It is complicated, but in the end we believe it’s really going to work well for our families.

Denver7: How will you help students and their mental health this school year?

Chris Gdowski: Our secondary students that might not be in a learning pod, we believe it’s critical that our students come back, especially as you’re making big transitions into 6th grade or 9th grade. That you have an opportunity to meet teachers at your school and in person in a back to school experience.

And for all of our secondary students, even if you’re not involved in athletics — and some athletics will be able to practice, even though the scale of sports and activities this fall will be much less than normal — but if you’re not involved in that, we still feel like coming to campus, if you have that interest, once every two weeks, to meet with a teacher and a cohort of students. Not so much to focus on any of your content but to check in and say,'How are you doing?' 'How can we support you better?' 'What are you struggling with?' If we see something in that setting that raises alarm bells for us, we can then refer that student on to a counselor, a social worker, a psychologist, to do a more intensive follow-up.

Denver7: What COVID-19 metrics will your district look at to make decisions this year?

Chris Gdowski: Those things we'll likely look at: How many cases do you have on average each day over the last 14 days, maybe longer. There could be some ups and downs in that process. We'll look at the rate of positive tests among those who are tested for COVID. If you get beyond 5%, at what level should you say there's just too much transmission going on and we need to get back to remote learning?

Quarantine rules will also be an important of the mix. CDPHE announced some revised standards that are helpful. Because up until that revision, we were under the impression we needed to quarantine kids even before you had a positive test, if they were having a runny nose, a headache, a cough — other symptoms that may not reflect that they had coronavirus.

Denver7: How strange will it be to have school with no students in class?

Chris Gdowski: As we landed on a path moving forward with having remote learning with a twist, as our standard for starting the year, there were tears in the room. So many of us and our colleagues, either as parents or longterm employees in school systems, so much look forward to the school year, having students in-person with us. There’s just a tremendous positive energy. And yet we’re going to do the very best we can in this new adjusted model to bring out as much of that positive energy we can to get kids off to a good start.

Denver7: Anything else you would want students, parents and staff members to know heading into the school year?

Chris Gdowski: We talk a lot about giving grace to one another. And giving grace to teachers, to other families that might have different points of view about to how to proceed in this pandemic, on what decisions we make, I think is critical.

It is such an up and down roller coaster season over the last five months. And there are times you feel like you're heading toward one outcome, like an in-person start. That was certainly true of us in June. Then as the virus escalates, you feel like you have to abruptly change and go a different direction.