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Hard lessons learned from sudden distance learning

The buildings are empty, the kids free at last, and teachers are taking a well-deserved breather. School’s out for summer! What have we learned over the course of this unprecedented year?

Back in March, the world changed overnight. COVID-19, once a distant threat, became an urgent and immediate reality for New Mexico. Without the swift action our state took, our communities could have been hit much harder with higher rates of infection or death. … But school leaders also didn’t have much time to ask the critical questions about what our students and families needed as they went into an indefinite period of lockdown.

Now, as our community comes out of the crisis, can we say we as state, local, and school leaders are continuously learning too? Here at MAS, we’re taking stock of our successes and where we need to improve for next time if it comes.

The fact our families have unmet technology needs may not be breaking news, but those needs may be different from what we once thought, and they might be more individualized than expected. As we discovered, kids don’t just need a device – they need a recent and portable device to access personal and effective instruction.

At the start of our distance learning journey, we furnished 200 families with desktop computers and other tech supplies. We used “retired” computers we could spare but quickly found those more than a few years old sometimes had trouble running the programs required for our continuous learning plans: in a survey of nearly 700 MAS families out of our 1,300 students, 39% reported program or computer crashes at least once a week while their students were doing schoolwork. Another 44% of our families said their home internet disconnected during or was too slow to support their students’ remote learning. And those without dependable or high-speed Wi-Fi found themselves tied down by power cords, unable to leverage the city of Albuquerque’s mobile Wi-Fi hotspots without a portable device.

Even families with the requisite equipment often needed technical assistance. Our instructional coaches who once helped teach kids math, science and reading were now hosting Google Meets to teach adults how to download and use online learning programs (up to) five days a week. On top of the technical challenges, 73% of our families have two or more students at home, but 41% have access to less than two portable electronic devices, including 9% with none at all. That (means) scheduling conflicts that present more obstacles to learning.

Ultimately, there were families we never got online, even with home visits to facilitate tech setup. We supplied our students with paper materials, of course, but we couldn’t make up for the weekly check-ins with teachers they missed – which have huge academic and social-emotional value as human interaction in a lockdown setting. There’s no doubt there were hundreds or even thousands of students across the state who experienced the same continuous learning failure this spring.

As we continue to collect data and feedback from our families, we’re seeking grants that could help us meet our families’ tech needs now. We encourage other district and charter schools to assess their resources and make plans, too. We must be prepared to do better next time if, God forbid, there is a next time.

As our community begins to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and its dire economic impact, our schools should look back at how we handled continuous learning so we can plan for the future – but to do it right, we must let our communities lead. What they tell us can give us a clearer picture of the best ways to support them, so our families and neighborhoods come out stronger on the other side.

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