Nicholas Wolverton posted a video on YouTube in late March. It’s an overview of a virtual science course he’s teaching at Polaris Expeditionary Learning School in Fort Collins.
“Since the coronavirus is definitely in the news and in our lives and affecting our lives,” Wolverton said. “I decided that the best thing that we could learn as scientists is to learn about viruses and specifically the coronavirus.”
The course is called the 2019 Coronavirus Unit. Middle school students learn all about the virus, from how it interacts with the body to creating a vaccine.
The four-week curriculum is based on ski slope levels. Wolverton starts his students at the green circle, learning basic concepts. They progress to blue, then black, and finally double black diamonds.
“These teenagers are going to be stuck at home,” he said. They're not going to understand like if they're not getting sick, why the heck they can't go hang out with their friends if they're not going to have symptoms.”
Wolverton posts a video for each level on Sunday and assignments are due on Friday. Students can work at their own pace, which is ideal, said Wolverton, because they have other stuff going on.
“They're dealing with their family, trying to take care of maybe some siblings at home or trying to just transition,” he said. “So, it's not a hundred percent participation. But the kids that are getting in, there are doing a pretty good job of getting assignments completed.”
That’s important because Colorado’s preschool through grade 12 schools are closed for the remainder of the school year. Students are finishing out the school year online.
“Our expectations that we communicate out to our teachers and our family,” said Robert Beauchamp, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Poudre School District. “I’d say the first thing is that it’s the health and well-being of our students.”
The district also wants its teachers to focus on "essential skills and concepts" and not worry about how much time students work each day.
“It's really hard to put a number of minutes or hours for learning. Some kids might cruise through some math problems really quickly, others might take a little longer,” Beauchamp said.
Colorado school districts have traditionally had a lot of autonomy. During the coronavirus pandemic, they were allowed to implement a remote learning plan that worked best for them. The state provided general guidance and relaxed some requirements, like taking attendance.
"The state’s been really great, very flexible,” Beauchamp said. “I think the thing that we have to keep reminding folks about is that we are operating in an emergency or crisis situation.”
This flexibility also extends to issuing grades. The district has essentially frozen them, said Beauchamp. Teachers can choose to give grades — but they can only help, not hurt students’ final marks.
“This philosophy, I think honors the fact that kids have been working really hard throughout the year,” he said. It also doesn't punish anyone for lack of internet access or lack of being able to engage in some of these end-of-year learning opportunities.
Poudre School District recently announced it will end new instruction by May 15 and remote learning on May 22. Schools will work from May 18 to May 28 to close out the school year. High school students will have the opportunity to make up work through May 28, which is when the school year was originally scheduled to end.
Wolverton checks in with his students weekly. Over video chat, he asks eighth-grader Noah Colbert what the most surprising thing is he’s learned during the coronavirus unit.
“I think it was the transmission rate of it,” Colbert replied. “Just that you can infect, on average, like 2.3 or something people per one person who has it."
Colbert is on the last level of the course, the double black diamond. The “why” behind concepts like social distancing are not new to him. Colbert has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that can lead to respiratory infections. It puts him at a higher risk to contract COVID-19.
“That's kind of second nature to me, you know. Like staying away from people who I think are sick and making sure you wash your hands a lot,” Colbert said. “I think it's cool because I can teach others that, who aren't really used to that.”
Colbert likes remote learning. He gets a lot of schoolwork done, plays basketball with his family, skateboards and hikes. Of course, there are downsides.
“It's also hard not being able to socialize with people and with my friends and teachers and stuff,” he said.
Polaris is a K-12 school, but Colbert is leaving to attend going to high school at another school in the fall. The school has a yearly tradition where eighth graders present final projects to judges, faculty and family during a special ceremony. It has been cancelled.
“It's kind of sad that we won't have that this year because that's kind of what every eighth grader is supposed to go through and their passage to high school,” Colbert said. “But I won't have that.”
Wolverton plans to continue putting lessons online when school returns to normal. Combining virtual learning with in-person instruction, he said, is a powerful way to teach students.
“It’s just a very interesting time to be a teacher,” he said. “I think that as teachers, the best thing we can do is just show up and do the best for our students.”
Right now, Wolverton is just ready to get back to the classroom — hopefully in August, when the new school year begins.