Santa Fe Public Schools already had the infrastructure in place for remote learning before the crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled teachers to learn how to fully use the digital tools at their disposal.
Like many schools throughout the United States, when the coronavirus forced Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) to go online, this 12,000-student district in New Mexico quickly put together an implementation plan and went to work.
With 14 digital learning coaches working under the direction of Drs. Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer, and Neal Weaver, executive director of digital learning, the district mobilized to ensure all students had access to digital devices and Internet, and that teachers received a full week’s worth of professional development on best practices for delivering remote instruction. And all of this happened over a two-week period in March. Now, two months later, Santa Fe is reaping the rewards of its digital readiness and rapid remote learning implementation. But it hasn’t been easy.
Though Santa Fe has pockets of wealth, New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country, and the Santa Fe school district’s free and reduced lunch rate is 75 percent. But the district has received significant community support through a property tax-funded Educational Technology Note. These monies have allowed the district to implement a one-to-one laptop program for students in grades six and above, hire digital learning coaches, upgrade district technology infrastructures, and make other significant technology purchases in support of student learning.
Having these instructional technology elements in place prior to the pandemic definitely meant the district was ahead of the game. But as the district’s superintendent Dr. Veronica Garcia alerted the public prior to Santa Fe’s remote learning initiative going live, “Hang on to your hats! The educational journey will be bumpy.” And it has been. But SFPS made some wise initial decisions that have helped smooth the road.
Ensure all students have Wi-Fi. At the beginning of the pandemic, over 500 SFPS students reported they didn’t have the home Wi-Fi necessary for remote learning. So the district has gone several routes to address this issue: Working with the city of Santa Fe to install outdoor Wi-Fi hot spots at several district schools in neighborhoods of greatest need, and ordering 500 Wi-Fi mobile hot spots for students’ at-home use.
Don’t overburden teachers. Many SFPS teachers had been using the Google Classroom learning management system (LMS) prior to the pandemic. And though the district has standardized to the Canvas LMS — incorporating it into their district-branded Open Access system — teachers were given a choice on which LMS they wanted to use for remote instruction. Those comfortable with Google Classroom continued on as before, while others were trained on using Open Access. Though it’s not a perfect solution for SFPS to be running parallel systems, and has confused some parents with kids on different ones, the “pick one” choice was well-received by teachers.
Likewise, district leadership, as well as New Mexico state authorities, have given teachers significant leeway to figure out how best to approach remote learning for their individual instructional methods and classes. And they’ve been encouraged to “Get out there and do your best. Be innovative.” As a result, many teachers have jumped at this opportunity and are exploring new teaching practices they may not have otherwise attempted.
Have the techies collaborate with the curriculum folks. Though Santa Fe’s Digital Learning team are all former teachers and had previously worked well with their Teaching and Learning counterparts, the district’s dive into remote learning has accentuated their collaborations. After the initial weeklong teacher trainings — focused on the basic tools, skills and pedagogies teachers needed for remote learning — the district’s digital learning coaches began putting together short 20-35-minute Google Hangout webinars for teachers.
After these initial tools-focused sessions, teachers began requesting assistance for their specific grade level and content areas. And this led to content area specialists from Teaching and Learning to partner with digital learning coaches on leading the webinars. Today, there are typically five of these webinars offered daily, with 20-50 teachers voluntarily participating in each one, and the session topics are driven by teacher requests. And many of the webinars are now led by teachers willing to share their successful remote learning strategies with their district colleagues.
Provide support to parents. A Distance Learning Parent Resource Guide was compiled by the district’s Teaching and Learning staff to help parents better support their students’ at-home learning. The guide is broken down by grade levels and subject areas and has proved to be a valuable asset. Teachers are also making regular contact with parents to check in on their students’ wellbeing and to offer additional instructional advice and support.
Meet teachers and students social-emotional needs. In the weeklong teacher trainings at the outset of the district’s move to remote learning, the digital learning coaches focused on meeting the social-emotional needs of teachers as they prepared to embark on a new and daunting way of teaching. And likewise SFPS teachers have now established “office hours” where they virtually meet one-on-one with their students to help them with their academic work, but also to support them in navigating these uncertain times.
Through it all, over 90 percent of Santa Fe’s students are logging on every day to the district’s systems to collect and submit their class work and to interact with their teachers, leading the district to redefine what constitutes “attendance” during this period of remote learning.
As Santa Fe’s digital learning leader Neal Weaver told me recently, “When schools reopen, teachers will have the ability to move the new instructional practices they’ve developed back into a traditional school environment. In our trainings with teachers, we’ve focused on how to transfer these skills — collaboration, critical thinking, e-learning, blended learning, along with face-to-face instruction — into both remote learning and classroom-based instruction. And we believe once schools start back up, these instructional strategies, some old and some new, will all combine together to become the new normal in our schools. And that’s the golden nugget in all of this.”