Schools work through spring break to implement ‘distance learning’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools work through spring break  to implement ‘distance learning’Most students and families got a reprieve from the ongoing educational tumult for spring break, but some teachers in Sierra Sands Unified School District used the week to implement “distance learning” practices.

“Everyone has been working overtime toward what we originally thought were temporary measures,” said Michelle Savko, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for SSUSD. But as directives from state and county levels of oversight continue to change, the district is now in the throes of completely reframing the delivery of education to allow students to get through the end of the term by offering remote instruction.

“We have been doing this knowing that many of our students, and even some of our teachers, have barriers that put them at risk in this distance-learning model. So there have been a lot of phases trying first to identify the needs and then deliver the necessary support and assistance,” said Savko.

“I go to bed thinking about this and I wake up thinking about this. We have been given two weeks to completely transform education. But I can say that I have been humbled by the response I have witnessed in Sierra Sands, and I believe it is because teachers are truly public servants who understand that our role is to protect our students — especially our most vulnerable.”

Sierra Sands initially planned for a four-week closure, in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 16 directive to close campuses while offering continuity of instruction, meal service and other supports that come with public education.

Now SSUSD is moving from the temporary packets of paper-and-online instruction to a longterm plan.

“We know what the doorway looks like when we open up a campus at the beginning of the school year,” said Savko. “The challenge has been, now that we have a ‘virtual doorway,’ how can we make sure it’s still accessible to every student?”

Part of that comes down to better understanding the digital divide. Sierra Sands conducted student- and teacher-centered surveys early on in this process to determine which families needed devices to access Google classroom suites, as well as MiFi hotspots for internet access.

Nearly 1,000 Chromebooks have been distributed, along with nearly 200 MiFis to help connect families with no internet service.

“Identifying the needs was an important first step, because we didn’t want to put time and effort where we didn’t need to. Now we are in the phase where we must provide the resources and support to meet those needs.”

Staff had a matter of days to get up to speed on technology, so that teachers and students alike had the training and technical support available. But that transition also came during a time when information flowing from higher levels of educational oversight were constantly changing.

“Michelle’s ability to wrangle these different concerns, challenges, directives and interpretations is just awesome,” said Dr. David Ostash, SSUSD superintendent. “Taking that input and engaging in a collaborative process and then interpreting and translating that guidance in real time has been an incredible challenge, but she met it brilliantly.”

Savko said that Sierra Sands has also leaned heavily on department chairs, teachers on special assignment, project teachers and other resource specialists to scale up knowledge of new interfaces in order to support teachers behind the scenes.

“I know that, regardless of personal comfort level, our teachers’ response has been student-centered,” she said. “We have discussed that because our expectation of our students is for them to be resilient and perseverant, we need to model it for them. And I have seen that our teachers are willing to do whatever it takes in their own life to make learning happen for our kids.”

So, now what?

“The next piece really has to do with recognizing the extraordinary shift in our parent-teacher partnership. One of the things that will make us successful is increasing the frequency in our communication,” said Savko.

“Many parents have expressed fatigue and frustration in this transition. Just like we have committed to supporting our teachers, we have to bolster our parents. A greater share of the responsibility is now going to fall to them.”

To this end, Sierra Sands has added parent or guardian access to Google Classroom “so that parents can have a more active part in their students success.”

Savko said that while the curve of the last few weeks has been extreme, she hopes to see that curve flatten out in time.

“[Ostash] actually drew an important parallel about this. When we return to instruction on April 13, it will be similar to reestablishing routines and procedures after summer break. That takes a good five to 10 school days, but it starts to level out. I think we are going to see that ‘leveling-out’ happen after the first couple of weeks.”

Both Ostash and Savko acknowledged that the current requirements on education are extraordinary.

“I think one of the things we can take away from this is how important our work is,” said Savko. “We know that our fears of the unknown are not as critical as our ability to meet student needs. And we have a dedicated staff that is meeting this challenge head-on.”

“We don’t have the option of failing,” said Ostash. “Our district exists to serve the children in our community — we must be successful. We must provide the very best education and support to them. Because the future of our community and our country depend on it.”

Pictured: Faller Elementary School teacher Jessica Auld converts space in her home to accommodate tools for “distance learning.” — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-04-10