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Nevada aims to make distance learning a permanent option

Heather Wetsel and her family remember vividly the frustrations of distance learning:

The failed log-ins, the live lessons that ate into the day, the submitted assignments that remained obstinately marked as unsubmitted — all part and parcel of the 2020-21 school year for Clark County School District students like Wetsel’s fifth grade daughter, Isabella.

As the pandemic year dragged on, however, Isabella not only adapted but thrived. She earned higher grades and test scores and landed on the principal’s honor roll — a first at the school for a student who receives special education services, Wetsel was told.

That was more than enough to convince Wetsel that even if school buildings reopened full time for the next school year, they would stick to virtual learning.

“Teachers are doing everything they can to work within the means they are given, and we appreciate every piece of help we’ve gotten,” Wetsel said. “But for us, going back was not an option.”

While distance learning began as an emergency response to school building closures at the onset of the pandemic, signs now indicate it may become a fixture on Nevada’s learning landscape.

The Clark County School District will offer both distance and in-person learning options at each school site next year, plus expand the offerings at its all-virtual Nevada Learning Academy to lower grades.

Statewide, a bill inspired by the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission for a Globally Prepared Nevada is aimed at compelling all districts to make a plan for virtual education and ensure students have access to technology — though some questions remain about how that would be funded, especially as emergency dollars dry up.

Senate Bill 215 would also do away with the traditional number of days that distance learning students must spend in a grade, allowing them to move through school as they master skills instead.

The aim of it all? To make distance learning a good option, rather than a last resort.

‘All the difference’

Wetsel said virtual learning didn’t magically work for her family; they made it work. They talked to the teacher when live lessons proved challenging and got recorded versions to watch later instead, effectively flipping the school day upside down.

“If she didn’t feel like doing math after dinner, then we did science,” Wetsel said. “That (flexibility) made all the difference.”

Wetsel said her husband supervised most lessons, stopping the video when he felt like Isabella had a question. By explaining the concepts once in the school’s way and then again in their own way, they were better able to find a method that would resonate with their daughter.

Beyond just improving on virtual learning, Wetsel said she noticed benefits over past in-person years, when her daughter would be pulled out of classes for special education services as specified in her individualized education plan, then be tested on what the class learned while she was gone.

Her successes with distance learning led Wetsel to sign up for the wait list for the 2021-22 school year at the district-sponsored Odyssey Charter School, which allowed students to learn from home with flexible on-campus time long before the pandemic.

If they aren’t accepted, Wetsel said, they’ll stick to the distance learning option offered by their zoned school, and carry on with family activities and trips to the park with friends for socialization.

“We like the structure of school, but we want to give her that one-on-one attention,” Wetsel said.

For distance learning to live up to its potential, Wetsel said, schools and families need to meet somewhere in the middle:

Schools should dedicate teachers to online-only classrooms rather than split their attention, while at home, parents who commit to distance learning should be prepared to be hands-on.

“They don’t have that one-on-one resource; they can’t just go to the teacher’s desk,” she said.

‘We can be hugely successful’

It’s helpful to think of distance learning during school building closures as a transition model that now needs to be refined as the district moves forward, said Brenda Pearson, the Clark County Education Association’s director of strategic initiatives.

Among the bright spots, teachers were creative and collaborative and focused on their students, Pearson said. But the abrupt changeovers between instructional models brought a feeling of ineffectiveness on the part of many educators, and sorely needed preparation time wasn’t always available.

“It’s like steering a large ship: It can be hard to change direction,” Pearson said.

Pearson said she’d like to see a long-term investment in distance education to make it more accessible to all students and staff.

For students, that means providing more than just a basic Chromebook and internet connection needed to participate, but resources for projects and problem-based learning that will allow them to take breaks from their devices, she said.

Teachers, meanwhile, need relevant professional training that allows them to develop and demonstrate online teaching skills, Pearson said. Online lessons can’t just be a facsimile of the in-person lecture, and a classroom staple like turning and working with neighbors doesn’t translate well in an online setting.

“That’s part of the reason why (some students) were disengaged — because they didn’t feel like they belonged in that setting, or could interact with their peers,” Pearson said. “If you have somebody sitting in front of you, the way you engage them is different than the way you engage them online.” The district is due nearly $800 million more in federal emergency funding, on top of the $400 million it has been allocated in previous waves for technology needs, personal protective equipment and more.

Pearson said the federal money can provide a foundation, but that balancing the ongoing costs of virtual learning exclusively on one-time funding will likely create quality issues down the line.

Given time and resources, Pearson said, all options are on the table when it comes to designing distance learning courses, like having one teacher record lessons that could be used across many schools.

“We need to make sure this is quality implementation, not another program we hope will get better with time. We have time now to make sure it’s implemented,” Pearson said.

“We can be hugely successful, if we give ourselves the time and resources to do it,” Pearson said.

May 21 deadline

The default instructional option for students next year is in-person learning, with those who would prefer distance learning required to opt in by May 21.

The district has put out a list of considerations for parents who are interested in distance learning, asking, for example, whether their children are independent learners and “effective communicators,” and whether there is an adult available at home to “support their learning, help them remain on task and answer questions.”

Distance students will also be required to keep their cameras on for the duration of daily real-time sessions — a departure from current policies allowing cameras to stay off.

The distance learning option provided by individual schools is best for students who’d like to stay in sync with the school’s schedule or participate in school clubs and activities, according to Mike Barton, the district’s chief college, career, equity and school choice officer.

Allocating staff exclusively to online classes is largely a site-based decision, dependent on the number of families who choose distance learning, Barton said.

“If families want to stay anchored at the school, there will be teachers that principals will use to staff those classes,” Barton said.

But Barton said the Nevada Learning Academy also intends to work closely with schools as distance learning requests come in, offering a more flexible option for families who might need to work on lessons on their own time rather than on the school’s schedule.

The all-virtual program is also expanding to kindergarten through second grades next year, after adding third through fifth grades this year via federal emergency funds.

Barton said the district hopes to entice some of the 4,000 students who have left the district for home schooling to return for added academic support from teachers well-versed in virtual instruction.

‘Here to stay’

Barton added that the district supports the legislative effort to offer more flexibility in instructional models and allow students to move forward when they’ve mastered concepts, rather than on a set schedule.

“I think it is here to stay,” Barton said of distance learning. “But at the same time, it’s not for everybody.”

The statewide commission that wrote the recommendations enshrined in Senate Bill 215 envisioned plenty of flexibility for districts, schools and students to decide how best to do flexible instructional models, said Karla Phillips-Krivickas, senior policy director of KnowledgeWorks, which facilitated the group’s work.

What might work well for a high school in downtown Las Vegas is likely not what would work well in a rural school, she noted. And where one student may take full course load online, another may need to take just one class virtually.

“The one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work for all kids. I think we knew that,” she said. “But COVID created this sense of urgency.”

But how do school districts ensure the quality of the new instructional models? Phillips-Krivickas said it’s no different from the mandate to ensure quality in-person instruction.

But when learning is untethered from a set pace of instruction and based on mastery of material, new options are possible, she said.

A group of teachers may come together, for example, to decide what standards a student has to know before moving on. That way they are still the architects of the learning experience, in whatever format it takes, she said.

“It’s not our vision that we’re going to put kids in front of a computer and walk away,” Phillips-Krivickas said. “I think that’s the fear people have.”

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at 702-383-0218 or aappleton @reviewjournal.com. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter.

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