Transitioning to Remote Learning Efficiently

Neal C. Weaver, Ph.D., CETL, Chief Information and Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools

Neal C. Weaver, Ph.D., CETL, Chief Information and Strategy Officer, Santa Fe Public Schools

Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS) is a New Mexico district of nearly 12,500 students. Our students are predominantly Hispanic, with a large English language learner population (21 percent) and those who qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program (74 percent). Santa Fe celebrates the rich cultures of our students’ families and our unique history as the nation’s oldest capital city.

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, SFPS was prepared to quickly pivot to a remote learning environment.  The district was committed to guarantee that every single student had access to high quality remote learning resources.  We ensured every student had a digital device, we had our learning management system (LMS) in place, and our teachers had already received regular professional development from our digital learning coaches on the thoughtful integration of technology in their classrooms — meaning the use of technology and digital resources as critical supports for best practice teaching and learning was commonplace.

Understanding the magnitude of this transition, SFPS leadership added an extra week to the district’s 2020 spring break. During this time, all teachers took district-developed online refresher courses covering the best practices of remote instruction, while our digital learning coaches provided them ongoing personalized support. With our teachers prepared for remote learning, we then turned to the daunting task of ensuring every SFPS student had access to the internet.

The use of instructional technology and digital resources must be supported as core instructional components

Like many U.S. districts, SFPS deployed a range of solutions to get our students connected — wifi hotspots, reduced-rate home internet packages, and the installation of access points, through a city partnership, in school parking lots. When we believed we’d finally connected every student, we took a moment to toast our success. But our celebration was short-lived, because it wasn’t long before students complained about poor connectivity, and teachers reported students were frequently dropped from virtual classrooms and unable to connect to digital resources.

It became clear SFPS had been asking the wrong question, and that students’ responses to “Do you have internet access?” didn’t provide adequate information for us to effectively address their needs. So, we switched to a series of questions designed to help us better understand if students’ connectivity was actually sufficient. In doing so, we became less focused on students’ internet capacity and more interested in their actual internet experiences. And once we made this transition, the shortcomings of their connectivity were revealed. 

Through a partnership with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN,) Innive, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, SFPS joined twelve other districts in an important Student Home Internet Connectivity Study. Over the course of six weeks in 2021, SFPS captured and analyzed the internet throughput of each student every time they engaged in remote learning. Millions of data points were collected and used to understand their internet experiences.

What we learned from this study was both enlightening and sobering. Because, though nearly all SFPS students were able to connect, the data showed that nearly half of our students had insufficient internet connections for their educational needs.

As a result, the methods SFPS now employs to help students achieve sufficient connectivity continues to be a multi-pronged approach, but with some significant refinements. We’re transitioning to cellular wifi hotspots with increased performance, and will ensure families with multiple students aren’t sharing a single hotspot. We’ll also continue working with our business, government and education partners on building sustainable free and low cost wifi for Santa Fe families.

And to that end, SFPS has recently partnered with Lokket to provide free basic broadband to every Santa Fe resident, while offering them the option to upgrade their service at affordable rates.

Aside from revealing our students’ insufficient connectivity, our internet study showed that devices do not all perform alike on a school network. Knowing this, as we refresh our student device fleet, SFPS will now purchase Chrome books with upgraded processors, RAM, and memory, and regularly evaluate our legacy devices.

We’ve also found that SFPS instructional resources and filters have a significant impact on student device performance. Each district system that interacts with student devices requires some digital overhead that must be considered.

Additionally, Santa Fe, like all U.S. districts, must take a hard look at the best ways to support teachers in expanding the skills they've gained this past year. Going forward, the use of instructional technology and digital resources must be supported as core instructional components. And we must also further embrace the new and successful ways we’ve engaged with our students and families during remote learning.

As educators, we cannot let the ebb of the COVID-19 pandemic allow us to slide back into our Paper-based instructional models. We’ve learned too much, lost too many, and made too many sacrifices for this to be a tenable result for our students and their families.

SFPS will continue to use the findings from the Student Home Internet Connectivity Study to inform and align our work, and to ensure student equity. The 2021-22 school year promises to be a challenging one. But our district is resolved to make certain all of our students have the connectivity — both at school and home — that affords them rich and meaningful learning experiences.

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