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CCSD teachers, students overcome rocky start to distance learning

Updated August 24, 2020 - 9:14 pm

Just five minutes before Andrea Roach’s second-graders were due to log on to their virtual class, the announcement she’d been dreading came over the public address system in her classroom:

“I’m getting reports that things are crashing,” said Robert Hinchliffe, principal at Tyrone Thompson Elementary School.

Roach had been concerned that the onslaught of logins on Monday from 314,000 students and 18,000 teachers in the Clark County School District would crash the district’s platforms for distance learning.

Not only did that prove true Monday as parents began to report errors because of heavy traffic on Canvas, the district’s primary online learning platform, but it also appeared to affect schools across the country in a nationwide outage.

Other issues trickled in with the password management app Clever and the school district’s Infinite Campus student information portal.

The possibility of a technology meltdown was part of the reason Roach decided during planning for the school year to avoid Canvas for the first few days of school.

Instead, to her relief, 21 of her 22 students logged on to a Google Meet without issue, and she taught uninterrupted for 45 minutes from a brand-new classroom decorated and supplied as if students might walk in any moment

She used the first day to explain their assignments for the week and read a story, “First Day Jitters,” about a teacher nervous to start a new school.

“I was expecting everything to crash, a lot of malfunction,” she said afterward. “But I feel much better.”

Students return

In a call with reporters, Superintendent Jesus Jara said the Canvas issues had been largely resolved around 10:30 a.m. Of 313,620 enrolled students, 200,763 had connected with their teachers in the morning, with more in class in the afternoon, he said. An addtional 16,000 were unaccounted for.

Students’ experiences seemed to vary by age. Older students reported positive experiences after a bumpy start to the mornings, while the youngest struggled to sit still and learn at home for the equivalent of a full school day.

“All the noise in the background, and the distraction of when the teacher would read a book, it echoed, so then he would lose interest,” Johany Torres Maya said of her kindergartener’s first day. “From 9 to 3 is just too much for parents to be next to their kids making sure everything is running smoothly.”

Rebecca Dirks Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA and moderator for the CCSD Parents group on Facebook, said that while many families expressed gratitude that the technical issues were quickly conquered in most cases, she heard more concerns regarding elementary students than secondary students.

“Many parents have expressed concerns for the length of the day for small children, including children not being engaged or losing focus, because six hours online for small kids is a lot,” she said. “Most secondary schedules are simpler to manage than elementary, and that just doesn’t make sense.”

Her own children, a middle schooler and a fourth-grader, had very positive experiences, she said.

In a Spring Valley High School sports leadership class, students reported no tech issues Monday morning but were not surprised to hear of problems elsewhere.

“It felt like a normal first day of school. We went through our syllabus and our first day of class,” said senior Kenna Scott. “It was definitely more organized than last time.”

Scott said she’s already conscious of what her class is missing this year — the prestige that comes with walking in to high school as a senior, athletics, senior nights — but she’s hopeful schools will reopen.

Senior Jazmin Arevalos Vasquez also said Monday’s classes were much more organized than those in the spring, and although she’d hoped to be back by now, a virtual education is better than none at all, she said.

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” Vasquez said.

Of a possible return to schools, she said: “I have hope, but I try not to have too much hope.”

Juniors Kylie Zimmerman and Sarah Staron reported opposite experiences in setting up their distance learning spaces, with Zimmerman opting for two monitors, a desk calendar, folders and snacks, while Staron, a self-described disorganized person, said she wrote on a pad of sticky notes.

“It’s hard to pay attention just sitting in a chair,” Staron said. “But I don’t want to be distracting. You can’t be with your friends and get the help.

“Getting up to stretch is definitely needed. You get tired of sitting in the space all day,” Zimmerman added. “But it’s what we have to do right now and it’s OK.”

In the classroom

Sports leadership teacher Billy Hemberger said he had no issues logging in to Canvas on Monday morning but heard that some colleagues did. Spring Valley decided Sunday to shift to Google Meet rather than rely on Canvas after issues with the software bubbled up on Friday.

“You just adapt and you get better, and that’s what the whole year’s going to be about,” Hemberger said.

Tony Garcia, a fourth-grade teacher at Keller Elementary, said the day went as smoothly as it could have, if not as smoothly as he wanted.

Beginning at 7 a.m., he had emails from parents asking for help logging in. Then came the Canvas crashes. During his live lecture, he kept getting kicked off the call, he said.

Despite the setbacks, Garcia said he was pleased overall with his students’ ability to keep up with the assignments he set forth, testing their abilities to write as well as perform basic computer functions like copying and pasting.

“I just want parents to understand that kids are really tech-savvy. They have very inherent skills,” Garcia said. “If you show them a couple times, they’re going to get it. And they like technology.”

At Thompson Elementary, Assistant Principal Vanessa Price said her primary mission Monday was to support teachers, whether they were teaching from home or from their classroom. Those who did come to the building walked down a red carpet to the door.

The brand-new school is named for the late Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, whose family attended the first day to deliver treats to the teachers and tour the campus.

“I wish the kids were here, running down the hallways,” said Thompson’s sister, Sonja Mason. “That’s the one thing you miss about the first day of school.”

One safety feature of the new school is that all students would have to funnel through the front office to enter, possibly allowing for temperature checks in the event of a return to schools, Principal Robert Hinchliffe said.

“We had great big plans in terms of students coming back,” he said, adding that the staff will roll out the fanfare again when students return. “We’ll do even more then.”

Around the district

School buses rolled out from the Arville bus yard Monday morning, some bearing Wi-Fi hot spots to reach students who don’t have reliable internet at home.

District officials are hoping to avoid a repeat of the spring distance learning experience, when some students could not be contacted consistently and some 4,300 weren’t reached at all. The district has pinned its hopes of improvement on the massive distribution of Chromebooks to students who lacked a computing device and a drive to ensure that families have internet connectivity in their homes.

Jara said Friday that 30,395 students still need devices and approximately 20,000 students remain without internet access.

Meanwhile, four rural CCSD schools — two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school — in Moapa Valley opened Monday with in-person classes at least part time. Ute Perkins Elementary School in Moapa, which has about 130 students, is holding full-time in-person classes.

Perkins parent Lisa Wolfley said she’s “super grateful” her twins Morgan and Connor, who are 10-year-old fifth-graders, can go back to school full time.

Precautions are being taken, such as a prohibition on parents inside the school, students’ lunchtime in their classroom and staggered outdoor play times with social distancing. Drinking fountains also have been turned off, and students were asked to bring water bottles.

The Wolfley family brought cleaning supplies such as paper towels Monday to donate to the school.

Some parents and students are still nervous.

“We’re dealing with anxiety and being nervous and scared, like the kids are,” Wolfley said.

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at aappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0218. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Julie Wootton-Greener and intern Jannelle Calderon contributed to this report.

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