COVID-19 caused a lot of change at Carson Elementary School. For one thing, there used to be a water fountain in the corner of its cafeteria. Now, it’s a rose bush.
“These drinking fountains had been completely covered up with black hefty bags and all this duct tape and they looked horrible,” before- and after-school instructor Jennifer Piel said as her students bobbed down the hall to class. “We just decided we would zhuzh them up a little bit. Instead of having to look at that hefty bag, we created sort of a garden space. The aesthetic of the room makes a big difference.”
This time last year, we met Piel as she sweetly sent her students off to Spring Break. Neither she nor her kids fathomed it would be the last time they’d see each other in person for months; their world changed in that single week of vacation. When August arrived, a lot of students continued to be locked out of school buildings. But Discovery Link, Denver Public Schools’ extended education program, was allowed to usher kids back inside.
Jesse Broadfoot, who oversees the program across the 40 schools where it’s offered, said pure “family need” drove DPS to keep buildings open for Discovery Link.
“Some families still had to get to work, and that’s what it came down to,” he said. “We stepped up.”
For the children in attendance, the chance to meet in person answered another critical need. In a year when so many people faced an existential crisis in isolation, these kids had an opportunity for human connection. It turns out their teachers needed that, too.
“I get these people who are just grateful to see me every day and I have these connections. And I mean, what more could you ask than for them, these little beautiful humans?” Piel said, stroking a kindergartener’s hair after school let out. “I’ve gotten tenfold back this year than what I’ve put into it.”
As she ran Discovery Link and, last year, a virtual learning hub in the cafeteria, Piel and her students used the materials around them to create a safe, loving space.
Like the water fountain, which they transmuted into a garden, they made the best of a dark time together.
“We took what we had and created something beautiful, even though we were given something kind of ugly to begin with,” she said.
Parents were no longer allowed inside, and the cafeteria’s windows became the only portals through with they could peek in and see what their children were up to. So the Discovery Link kids created art and pasted their works to the glass. Trophy cases lining the hallway outside were unused, empty and sad. So the kids helped Piel fill them with drawings and projects they’d worked on together.
In the mornings and afternoons, they created a newspaper – the Daily D.L. – and wrote letters to Kamala Harris and the queen of England. Someone wrote back on behalf of the queen, so they framed her response and stuck it on the wall.
One year after the pandemic began, Piel said she’s been dismayed by so many stories of things we lost. She wants people to know there were wins, too. Silver linings like children’s giggles and bonds that tightened when the world seemed like a scary place.
Rylan, a second-grader who likes to draw smiling ice cream cones and pizza slices, was glad for all of the activities this year.
“It’s been really painful and bad, but I like having Discovery Link. Because Ms. Jen and all of the women here, they make me feel nice and happy when I’m sad,” she said. “I can’t imagine (this year) without my friends and my teachers.”
Her little brother, Mac, answered simply when asked what the last 12 months would be like if he wasn’t allowed to come to Carson.
“Saaaad. And not fun,” he groaned.
Mike Becker, whose first grader has been in Discovery Link all year, said his house was chaotic last school year before Discovery Link reopened and his family was stuck inside together. For him, it’s critical that Isadora has a safe place to play and learn with other kids.
“The lockdown has been hardest on kids more than anything. They’re such social creatures,” he said as Izzy climbed into the backseat of his car. “It’s really the most important part of education, learning how to interact within groups because that’s all you do as an adult. Not having that has been devastating for them, so having Discovery Link around, where they can have that interaction, has been huge. Not only for their mental wellbeing but for their progress as humans.”
Making it work hasn’t always been easy. Kids, especially the younger ones, need constant reminders not to get too close and make sure their masks cover their little noses. As they shook jars of cream last week, to demonstrate how molecules bond to make butter, Piel gently asked students to keep their butts in their seats. Generally, though, she said they’ve been resilient.
“I feel like the future is bright, because these kids have taken just one blow in one lick after another this year and very rarely ever, ever fussed or complained,” she said. “I just look at them and I think to myself, like, I’m so proud of them. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Next week marks another transformation at Carson. Spring break begins again on Monday. After vacation ends, DPS will begin to allow in-person learning five days a week.