A flexible plan that leverages existing tech resources and focuses on communication is key, say this district’s leaders
For Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut, distance learning began on March 13. Going to this new environment required us to create a distance learning plan, design memorandums of understanding with our union partners, create work assignments, establish food distribution sites and communicate with all stakeholders.
While students in grades 6-12 had school-issued devices, we distributed over 3,500 Chromebooks to our K-5 students. We collaborated with our teachers unions and administrators unions to create clear teacher expectations for distance learning. While hot spots were always available for students to sign out, similar to books from the media center, we added an additional 75 hot spots to support student learning at home. We also opened and successfully closed over 175 technology work orders from our students and families.
So what does distance learning look like? We have stayed true to our core values: Students learn anytime, anywhere and embrace flexible learning spaces in their own homes. Because all students learn differently—and we know that voice and choice matter—students access assignments when it is convenient for them and their families, and teachers use multiple tools to connect with students online.
Our plan was developed to provide all students with learning experiences that leverage our digital content and resources in addition to core instruction from our teachers at each grade level.
Leveraging digital content
Meriden Public Schools’ weekly digital content requirements focus on sustaining and providing personalized and adaptive content for all learners. The district has shared the minimum number of minutes that students should be accessing digital content as part of their core assignments each week.
Because all students learn differently—and we know that voice and choice matter—students access assignments when it is convenient for them and their families, and teachers use multiple tools to connect with students online.
While we cannot control the level of support a student may have at home or the capacity of every teacher to provide distance learning support, we knew we could provide access to our core curricular resources in reading and math with which both students and teachers were comfortable.
At the elementary level, this includes English language arts instruction for 60 minutes per week in Imagine Learning and myOn, and ST Math for 60 minutes per week. Teachers in kindergarten through grade 5 are providing lessons in Google Classroom.
For grades 6-8, weekly expectations include 30 minutes of writing and grammar instruction with NoRedInk, 30 minutes of science with Legends of Learning, and 60 minutes of math using ALEKS. In addition to using Google Classroom, high school teachers also use the learning management system Moodle to offer anytime, anywhere access to curriculum.
Expanding use of existing resources
With the digital content in place and easily accessed, we looked at how to expand the use of existing resources to meet the needs of all learners. Legends of Learning, previously used for middle school science, was extended to grades 3-5 for 30 minutes of science instruction. ALEKS was added at the high school level for 60 minutes of math instruction each week. Reading Plus, previously used with a limited number of students, was expanded to both the middle and high school levels for 60 minutes of reading instruction. NoRedInk was extended to the high schools for 30 minutes per week of writing and grammar instruction. Finally, College Board AP preparation and testing information was quickly shared with students.
Outside of the core content areas, our unified arts provides an opportunity for students to explore their passions and interests. These are fun, engaging activities that require minimal parental support. At the high school level, credit-earning classes in unified arts are part of the students’ daily schedule. The K-8 unified arts teachers are posting weekly assignments for their students to complete.
And to make sure all students and staff can easily access distance learning resources, Meriden uses ClassLink. Students use our single sign-on portal with a home device or a district-issued device.
Supporting tech needs for teachers, students and parents
We also leveraged existing resources to support teachers, students and parents. We already had a help desk system and the staff in place to support teachers. Our technology integration specialist provides tech tips via email, maintains a technology integration website full of resources, and frequently provides remote support to teachers in other buildings through Google Meet. Content area coaches in reading and math also support teachers.
So where were the gaps in distance learning support? Since students and parents needed a way to access tech support that would usually be handled at the school level, we launched remote support. Families can complete an online form or call us. Our IT staff will troubleshoot the problem, and if they cannot fix a Chromebook issue remotely, families can drop off the Chromebook at school and pick up another device so students can continue to work at home.
Setting clear teacher expectations
As we implemented distance learning, we worked closely with our teachers union to develop a memorandum of understanding that provides clear teacher expectations. We are supporting teachers at home in multiple ways, including web-based professional development on both digital tools and best practices for distance learning. Coaches are working with teachers on digital content as well. IT continues to work with teachers remotely, and virtual staff and department meetings are held weekly to address any issues or concerns.
We use Google Classroom, Parent Square and Google Meet to engage families and students. We continue to stay in close communication with the state Department of Education, as well, and follow the most current guidance. We also use Google Meet to provide direct 1-to-1 related services.
Our support personnel have begun to engage in phone and video activities with students. Students who have a high need for social-emotional learning skills, who have had difficulty engaging in distance learning, or who are identified by their classroom teacher as requiring additional adult support for social-emotional needs have been targeted for this service.
In addition, our partnership with Gaggle and use of safety management has proven to be just as essential in distance learning as it is in a traditional setting. Gaggle has alerted us to concerns and we have had clinical staff reach out to the families and include emergency services if needed.
7 tips for success
Here are seven takeaways from the development and implementation of our distance learning plan.
- Set clear expectations for students and staff. Our distance learning plan includes minimum participation minutes and guidelines for interacting with students and families.
- Continue learning for your students and your staff. There is no doubt that learning has changed during this time, but by no means should it stop. Both students and staff will need to learn new skills, which is why you need to provide support.
- Leverage your staff. Our existing support staff and other teacher leaders, including technology teachers, and department leaders provided Google Meet sessions for staff on multiple topics, including Meet, Classroom, Forms, Moodle, etc. Our IT department created a help desk system for parents and students experiencing technical difficulties.
As our distance learning plan evolved, students, parents and staff were feeling overwhelmed with both the quantity of digital learning material and the rapid pace of change. Limiting the number of tools as well as setting district expectations helped everyone to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Stick with what you know. While dozens of vendors have graciously offered to extend free subscriptions to districts during the pandemic, there is something comforting in familiarity, especially in times of stress. Start with those programs and tools with which your staff and students are familiar. See if there are additional features that can be incorporated into your distance learning plan before adding new tools.
- Keep it manageable. As Meriden’s distance learning plan evolved, we were aware that students, parents and staff were feeling overwhelmed with both the quantity of digital learning material and the rapid pace of change. Limiting the number of tools as well as setting district expectations helped everyone to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Be flexible. This is not a static plan. We are definitely in a continuous improvement cycle. We plan, we implement and we monitor to see what is working and what is not, and make adjustments as new information becomes available.
- Stop, recognize and celebrate successes. Even with all of the chaos going on around us, there are great things happening every day. We are so proud of our students, families and staff for jumping into distance learning and doing the best they can to make it work.
Meeting student needs now—and in the future
Public education in America will never be the same. All of us have been challenged to look at education differently, and we have seen the power of teachers and technology coming together to meet the needs of students. Our experience and lessons learned this year ensure that regardless of what fall 2020 brings, we will be ready to educate all of our learners. The only question is: Will we be on-site or will learning be at a distance? We will continue to follow the guidance of state leaders, health officials, and our teachers and staff. We will let the health and welfare of our students and staff continue to be our guide.
So purchase, repair and replace those student devices. Our students and staff have shown us that distance learning can work for all learners.
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools. Susan O. Moore is the district’s supervisor of blended learning, supporting student-centered learning initiatives, personalized learning and 1-to-1 device programs.