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Lessons learned from distance learning in Washoe County

By Natalie Van Hoozer
Published: Last Updated on

En Español

Schools across the country continue to rely on distance learning to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Washoe County School District is now creating several different plans for possible fall instruction. One option is a blended learning model, which would include both in-person and remote instruction. 

Here is a breakdown of how the transition from in-person to online instruction affected educators and students in Washoe County this spring. 

The landscape for distance learning in the district

Teachers from Echo Loder Elementary, Hug High School and Wooster High School explained that many of their students relied on the paper packets with core curriculum assignments to complete their work this last semester. Many low-income families do not have a computer at home that students can use for their schoolwork or to communicate with their teachers. To make progress despite this lack of resources, teachers made the time-intensive decision to call students who had access to a phone one-by-one, walking them through printed assignment packets. 

Some schools also have higher numbers of students who come from non-English-speaking families, so distance learning has proved even more complex because school interpreters are responsible for communicating with students and their parents.  

Lessons learned

Amy Wright, the principal at Echo Loder Elementary, said the faculty there has been cautious to not overwhelm families. 

“Most of our kids have two or three siblings, who are also getting a phone call each week or every day or three times a week, and it’s a lot,” Wright said. “We’ve tried to really be cautious and find out how much parents want from us in order to make [distance learning] work for each family on an individual basis.”

This last semester, teachers focused less on asking their students to complete all assigned activities. Instead, they worked with students on the subjects where they needed the most help. In addition to calling their students about coursework, teachers checked on students’ wellbeing and if they had essentials, like enough to eat. 

Unexpected benefits 

Washoe County educators said that distance learning places an additional responsibility on the students themselves to be in charge of their own education. However, they were surprised at how even elementary schoolers continued to make progress on their schoolwork. 

“I know several of the students that I call during the day, their parents are both at work or sometimes they’re helping supervise other siblings,” said Mary Morton, a fourth grade teacher at Echo Loder Elementary. “It makes me admire them all the more, though, that they are getting as much academic work done as they’re able to without anyone standing over their shoulder. The work that they are getting done, it’s out of their own work ethic.”

At Wooster High School, the English learner staff said that some students have had to move to countries like Mexico and Colombia during the pandemic but were able to finish the semester because classes were online.  

Summer break and beyond

The school district distributed summer learning packets to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, which are also available online. Students also have access to digital libraries through the Washoe County and Nevada State Libraries. High schoolers who need to do credit recovery are doing online summer classes. 

The district is hoping to have a plan announced about next semester’s learning format in early to mid July. The district also offered school staff, students and families a survey to fill out about the learning format for fall classes, with the aim of incorporating the responses to the survey into the decision-making process. 

Concerns over summer learning loss

Research from organizations like the Northwest Evaluation Association states that prior studies of summer learning loss are a helpful starting point when looking at the impacts of COVID-19 and school closures on learning. Preliminary forecasts suggest that with COVID-19, many students will return to their classes in the fall more behind academically than normal. Students across the country may have only made 70 percent of the gains that they normally would have in reading in a typical school year and less than 50 percent of the normal gains in math.

This research highlights that the pandemic has caused additional trauma and a lack of stability for students, like a need for technology and basic necessities like food, and these things could exacerbate traditional learning losses. 

The reporting for this story originally aired on KUNR Public Radio and was produced in partnership with Noticiero Móvil.

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