When Euclid Middle School Principal Cindy Corlett finally got to see two concerts this past month, her emotions were overwhelming.
“I literally was brought to tears by having our students be able to perform and the parents there to be able to see it,” Corlett said. “We went almost 500 days without having a concert, and a middle school shouldn't be that way.”
As schools across Littleton prepare to enter what will be a third year of learning in the era of COVID-19, educators and students said they have finally begun to feel a sense of normalcy again - even if the future remains uncertain.
For Corlett, the return of live performances and other extracurricular activities has brought back an important element of school that had been missing for students.
“It's so great to see because it builds community, it connects our kids and we're so happy that we're able to do additional activities,” she said. “For some students, that's the highlight of their day and it makes their learning easier when they can go to their passion areas, whether it's the music or sports, that's a key piece to what they do and who they are.”
Adam Williams, who coaches girls basketball at Littleton High School, said having sports back has “been huge.” Williams was able to see his high schoolers through a half season this past spring as well as enjoyed the return of summer camp.
“It's really good for kids, mentally, to have them engaged in positive activities,” he said.
Since being back on the court, Williams said his focus has been less about wins and losses and more about appreciating the time spent together.
“We use the term family in our program a lot and it did feel really family oriented,” he said. “Just being able to go back out and be together and compete. It feels a little bit more normal this year.”
But the pandemic's effects on learning remain.
Aside from the tangible marks COVID has left on classrooms, such as masks, students are still readjusting mentally to in-person learning.
Littleton Public Schools brought all its students and teachers back for full-time, in-person classes last spring, marking a full school year since the district switched from remote or hybrid learning. For some students, the change presents a challenge.
“The last couple years, I've kind of felt like a new teacher again,” said Williams who, along with coaching basketball, teaches social studies to middle and high schoolers at Options Secondary Program.
While online, Williams said some students were struggling to stay engaged. Once they returned to the classroom, they continued to find it hard to meet the expectations of in-person learning, with students expected to participate more than they may have during a remote class.
“Just being together with a group of people again, for a lot of kids, was difficult,” Williams said. “You have kids who started the year as a ninth grader as their first year in high school this year, and they haven't had a normal year of school in a year and a half.”
Williams said he knows there will still be “hiccups or bumps along the way,” as he looks to next semester. Since returning to in-person classes, Williams said he has had several students who've had to quarantine after being exposed to COVID. When that happens, students can access their missed lessons and coursework online through Google Classroom.
Even with the online access of their lessons, students returning from quarantine can struggle catching up, Williams said. But every week that students are back in class he notices progress.
“I think kids are getting there. They're getting back to being used to being in the classroom and engaging in things,” he said. “I feel like I'm seeing the stamina come back a bit, but there's still gaps … I think we just have to do our best to get them back to where they need to be whilst also affording the kids grace as well.”
Along with coursework, students are also getting back to a more routine social life with peers, something that Options high schooler Travis Hancock said he missed most during the first year of the pandemic.
“It feels amazing, this is what I remember school (being) like,” Hancock said. “I love going to school. I love socializing.”
Before his school returned to in-person learning, Hancock barely saw friends and spent much of his time social distancing. He lives with his grandparents and said the early months of the pandemic were especially difficult as he grappled with social isolation and trying to make sure his household was safe from the virus.
“COVID was really hard around my house,” he said. “I noticed my mental health went down a lot. Not being able to see friends, hang out. My 10th grade year was kind of a blur.”
Being back in school full time, Hancock said he feels energized again to engage in classes and with friends, bringing a school life that has begun to feel more like a pre-COVID experience.
With one year left before he graduates, Hancock is currently taking concurrent enrollment classes at Arapahoe Community College (ACC), something that wasn't a victim of COVID-shutdowns thanks to ACC's ability to offer classes online.
ACC President Stephanie Fujii said the pandemic showed the college it could offer classes and resources in ways it hadn't before.
“Students actually like virtual services,” Fujii said.
With about 80% of the college's students attending classes part-time, many are working or raising families. Fujii said keeping online services is needed to meet students' needs even after the college's campuses fully re-opened this fall.
But the virus is still presenting obstacles for ACC as it looks to next semester. ACC recently implemented a vaccine or testing mandate for all students and employees who plan to return to any of its three campuses in Littleton, Parker or Castle Rock for the spring semester and beyond.
With a renewed threat from the rapidly spreading Omicron virus, Fujii said vaccination and testing will be crucial to ensuring the campus can remain open.
“These are not necessarily easy times,” Fujii said. “We all thought COVID would be done.”
While uncertainty may loom for educators across Littleton, educators say schools are better positioned than ever to respond to whatever the pandemic may bring their way.
“I always feel optimistic about the future,” said Corlett. “We have experiences, we have ideas … when (COVID) first started we had no idea how to do that.”
Keeping schools open will be vital for student success, said Corlett, something that, before COVID, was often taken for granted.
“The thing that I didn't really realize is how limited our time is together,” she said. “And now, I realize the gift that it is each day.”