Distance Learning Helping To Foster Student Agency in Churchill County

May 15, 2020

The end of the 2019-2020 school year is nearly upon us. Districts would typically use this time to finish any last-minute preparations for graduation or end of the year grading. But this year, many school leaders are focusing on what it will take to reopen ahead of the next academic year. KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Summer Stephens, the superintendent of the Churchill County School District, to see how the district is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

BOGER: Superintendent Stephens, thank you so much for joining me. Let's go ahead and jump right in. How has the Churchill County school district handled the transition to distance learning? 

STEPHENS: We're almost two months in, and I would say that I feel like our district is fairly successful at this point in the work. This illuminated, for all of our staff and our families, the need for spending time building opportunities for kids to develop agency, and for staff to develop more agency. So actually, this is a horrible time. No one would wish this on anyone. It's scary for many reasons, not just because of COVID-19. But it has illuminated, for folks, this need, and it actually, I believe, will spearhead and spark a movement to really reconsider what learning looks like.

BOGER: That agency aspect of student learning, it's something that you've touched on throughout the school year, is my understanding. What does that mean for the district?

STEPHENS: You know, for a long time, it was a single person in a room with pupils who held a lot of information and knowledge and conveyed it to kids. What we know now is, we hold in our hands every piece of information that exists in the world. And so we wanted to think of multiple pathways to learning. That's been a message in my time in the district, that we'd been working on strategically. How do we create learning environments that allow for kids to have voice and choice in their learning, and that time and location do not dictate your ability to learn? Using distance learning, using a device, absolutely has to enhance, promote, and extend learning. [It's] not to be a replacement for a human figure. So we're still getting better at how to use our tools to create, to make, to evaluate, [and] to innovate for us.

It did illuminate some areas that we weren't as strong in. It illuminated some levels that maybe hadn't done some of the same work already. But we had the tools available and in place, which was awesome because we didn't have to scramble around. People are just getting much better over the course of this time because they can actually spend a little time learning how to do some of these things. This is, I think, a really strong component, and it's helping people understand how we can have a really blended environment when we are back in person.

Kids can learn on their own. What's important is we give them the tools and the skills to learn, and make sure that they have those. Then people can really pursue their interests and passions and that the adult presence really is [a] facilitator, which helps even grow exponentially people's capacity.

BOGER: What are you hearing from parents through all of this?

STEPHENS: From every experience that I have with parents, be it on Facebook, in emails, talking with them on the phone, I'm [hearing] a hundred percent support of what we're doing. I know that's pretty extreme, but this is an awesome time that we've seen families really just getting down in there and getting to work. Our staff has gotten better over the weeks, providing some more things for kids that's pretty directed so kids can work on their own. However, we have a lot of families who are stressed. They're stressed because of the situation. Many people have lost their jobs. They're concerned about being able to ensure that their kids have food to eat, and that they're safe, and that mentally and emotionally that they're doing okay.

BOGER: You're a member of a committee that's looking at what will it take to reopen schools across the state. What would you like to see come out of that group? What needs to be in place before schools reopen?

STEPHENS: Thinking about that, I don't think anyone's interested in saying, 'you have to open on this date, and you must have this in place, and you can only do it this way.' I think the interest of the state in this work is, 'what are all of the considerations,' because, ultimately, it was just about how do you get 1,000 people back in one space. You know, that might be all-around safety and health, but there are all these other elements about feeding them and transporting them in the learning. So what's important, I think, in the work that we're doing is that we identify every facet of schooling and that we have flushed through that to have all of the questions the best we can answer so that we can give some guidance to individual districts to meet the needs of their community.

It's like emergency management after the event. We're in recovery, and we're trying to build a new plan so that when an event happens, whatever that is, we have all of those things thought through. This is a tool that can be used for moving forward for other events and for schools if they have individual crises. You know, to think about what are all those elements, because we don't think about that enough, down to the, 'what to do you do with the office staff when they can't be at work, and they don't want to use their personal cell phone, and you didn't budget any money to pay them to get a work phone?' So that's what I'm looking forward to, helping really think through every facet of schooling and learning, and then putting in those parameters that help schools make their own choices for their communities.