Public schools across Nevada remain closed as part of the state’s ongoing effort to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. But to prevent students from losing ground midway through the academic year, districts are turning to distance learning plans. To talk about what that means for the 64,000 students enrolled in Washoe County schools, KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Debbie Biersdorff, the district’s chief academic officer.
Boger: Debbie, can you take me through the district's distance learning plans? What are they and what can parents and students expect to see?
Biersdorff: What the district is highly encouraging our families to do is to use the distance learning materials because they do a number of things. They do reinforce previous and current learning that our students have received. They also do what we call 'stretch learning.' So building on skills and standards that our students have been exposed to, have been taught and have mastered, or are building on those skills. So it could be an elementary student continuing to work on their level of reading, to a high school student who continues to delve a little deeper into world history or into their biology class. There's a couple of reasons why we did that. This was not an opportunity, we strongly felt, to introduce any new learning, new content [or] new standards, knowing that our students aren't with their teachers right now. We also thought it was super important to mitigate or be mindful of what is happening right now and the situations that our families may be finding themselves in right now that are stressful or frustrating or scary. We didn't want to add on that or pile onto that.
Boger: Will this be a full school day?
Biersdorff: The guidelines for distance learning were to provide between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours of distance learning per day for students. So Washoe quickly decided that we were going to implement a distance learning plan and that the plan needed to meet the needs of all of our students. We have students who have access to the internet and have devices at home. We have some families that we know don't have access to the internet or may not have a device at home that's suitable for distance learning, like a laptop or something like that. The other consideration we needed to make is that the materials needed to be equitable for all students. So what we delivered or provided electronically needed to look the same as what was being provided in hard copies or in a packet.
Boger: What kind of feedback have you gotten from teachers?
Biersdorff: We have been working with some teachers throughout the district. We also have teachers that serve as coaches or content experts that aren't assigned to a school but work at the district level. They're the ones, a lot of them, that designed these materials. So we have had input from some teachers, but as far as our entire teaching workforce, they will start to see the materials as soon as they get sent to their principal.
Being on spring break gave us a little bit of time to really be thoughtful about these materials, and we've got a lot of people working on the materials, as well as the logistics of the delivery of the materials. Though they've been working super, superfast, we've had people that have worked over their spring break to get these materials in place.
Boger: What about special needs students or English language learners? What kind of consideration has the district taken in trying to support those students through these lesson plans?
Biersdorff: We call them 'scaffolds of support' within the instructional materials for our special education students, our English learners and also our gifted and talented students. So with that being said, we do have students who are on an [Individualized Education Plan] who have specific needs for support. Our special education department, in parallel to the work that we've been doing with these distance learning [materials], are also designing distance learning materials for those students as well. They will be working very closely with families to help provide differentiated instruction for those students, too.
Boger: How are you going to get those physical packets to the students?
Biersdorff: We need to make sure that what a student is seeing in a hard copy form is what a student who's logging into a device — that they get because they're at a one-to-one school or their parent's laptop, whatever the case might be — that they're seeing the same materials. When we distribute the materials down to Washoe Valley out to the Natchez area, up to the North part of Spanish Springs, we want to get the materials in the hands of all of our students who need it. That was a big reason why we determined that we were going to do the hard packets. That's a big lift.
Just to let you know, logistically, it looks like the transportation plan [is] to put between 50 and 55 buses on the road that would head out to 120 stops. The stops vary from current bus stops, not all of them, and we'll have it on the website where they are. Maybe near an apartment building or pulling up in the parking lot of a high school. They're mapping it out where they think the best distribution areas will be and then distributing the materials to families there. I'm a parent and I come up and I say, 'Hey, I have a second-grader and I have a ninth-grader.' They would be able to give those materials quickly to that parent for the students.
Boger: What day does this actual distance learning begin?
Biersdorff: The official first day is April 1, next Wednesday. Now also, too, as we come off spring break, the Nevada Department of Education granted each school district two days of professional development with the idea being to start to plan and work together for the implementation of materials. Washoe's first two days are going to be March 30 and 31. So our principals are already preparing to have their teachers come back virtually and to start getting teachers up to speed, asking them to familiarize themselves with their particular content or grade level of the materials.
Principals are also working with their counselors and others this week to start generating what we're calling contact lists. Those contact lists are lists of students and families that our teachers will be reaching out to starting next week, to check in on kids. 'How are you doing?' Asking questions, providing support. Those can be via a phone call, perhaps, or it could be an email.
Then we have some new schools that opened up [at] the beginning of this school year. Those are one-to-one schools where the kids all have their own devices. Throughout this school year, the teachers have been doing a lot of instruction digitally, and so those tools that kids are familiar with, they can use from home. That would also be a contact with the students as well. Teachers reach out to kids, or kids reach out to teachers.
Boger: As I'm sure you know, parents can also have a lot of trouble helping their students with their homework. What support is there for parents?
Biersdorff: We started from a place of, 'How do we keep distance learning simple? But how do we not add or pile onto our families?' Designing materials that we think families will enjoy doing with students as well. For me, I think the opportunity for parents to engage with students in a different way of learning, and what students are working on in school, would be a positive thing for many of our families.
As far as parents specifically, if your child gets frustrated or there's a question [you] can't answer, we don't want parents to get frustrated at all. We've really tried to have that lens on when we've designed these materials because we don't want to cause a negative situation that could happen in the home as a result of the distance learning plan.
Also on the district website, there's a page that's being built right now that will house all these materials; the distance learning materials and there are other resources on that website as well. There's a family newsletter and it talks about coping skills and how to talk to your child or other opportunities for learning besides these packets. The teachers are going to be encouraged to talk to families, to talk to parents, 'How are you doing? How can we help you? What do you need?' So trying to continue to keep those relationships that our families have with their school site, to keep those intact as best as we can.
Boger: Like everything with his pandemic, it seems like there's going to be a ripple effect from this time outside of the school. What is the district doing to make sure kids don't fall behind?
Biersdorff: Right now, for Washoe at least, starting up the distance learning plan and trying to get some kind of normalcy in the lives of our students; thinking about school, their learning and connecting with their teacher or their principal. That's been a priority for many, many folks in the school district. I think there are a lot more decisions to be made. I know people are working hard. I see emails at 10 o'clock at night and four o'clock in the morning. People are trying to think through all of these different scenarios or making suggestions. Everybody wants a decision as quickly as possible. We do, too, but we've got to just continue to work through this process.
We don't know when school is going to go back. We believe right now, school goes back on April 16. We really hope that will be the case. We want to see our kids, we want to see our students in the doors and our teachers back in their classrooms. But it's kind of unknown right now, what will happen in the future.
Boger: This has been a tough year for a lot of students in the district. What role do teachers play in making sure their students are doing okay emotionally, not just academically.
Biersdorff: What I very much believe about Washoe County School District is we focus on relationships. We understand that students won't learn if they don't feel safe. If they don't have a trusted adult to talk to or to go to.
I used to be principal of Wooster High School. When a student walked into my school, I knew who the student was. I might know of a tough situation. It might've been they didn't make the football team, or it might've been they got an F, or it might've been that there was something happening in the home. We do our very best to know our students because for a lot of our kids, a safe place to come to is school. [They] can get a meal, [they] can be with people who care about them.
But this particular situation, we're not seeing our students. They're not coming in our doors and that is very difficult. This is so different because we can't look in our kids' eyes every day. That's going to be tough for our teachers, but it's going to be very tough for our counselors and our principals. That's where that contact comes in — by phone, by email, by the other tools that we have to stay in contact — the digital tools we have to make contact with our kids.