Back to school, via tablet: Nevada Joint Union High School District ramps up ‘distance education’
Maggie Aguilar Diaz, now a senior at Ghidotti Early College High School, was the first junior ever elected as the student trustee on the board of the Nevada Joint Union High School District.
Over the last year, in and out of school session, Aguilar Diaz has attended regular board meetings, hosted student advisory committees and directly contacted students from each school to help peers and administrators make the most of a “surreal” situation due to COVID-19.
“It’s kind of just finding a balance and doing what I think is right, is really hard as a leader, and listening to everyone at the same time,” Aguilar Diaz said.
The senior voted on July 22, alongside the rest of the district’s board, to embark on the 2020-2021 school year on a remote platform, at least until a fall break in October.
The school year begins Monday.
“Right after I got out of that board meeting I immediately recorded a video for all my followers and it was kind of crazy,” she said. “I knew people really wanted to come back and I understand why. Mental health during these times is really hard.”
According to Superintendent Brett McFadden, mental health is a top priority for everyone in the district, given a student’s suicide amidst the pandemic’s outbreak last spring.
Even if the board’s decision had not been unanimous, or if her district had opted for a hybrid education model, Aguilar Diaz said she would have opted into distance learning because of those especially vulnerable in her home.
Aguilar Diaz said she talks to her “constituents” — students and parents alike — on Instagram. Throughout the year, leading up to the board’s decision, and after, she received some messages to her personal handle in support of an in-person education and others pleading with her to vote against a hybrid model: “Please, I‘m a mom, and I don’t think it’s safe.”
The understanding that distance learning would play an integral part of this coming fall was not only obvious to those on the board with at-risk individuals in their home.
According to McFadden, the assistant principal at Nevada Union High School, Luke Browning, helped the district move past their first stage of pandemic-related grief — denial.
“He’s really a thought leader,” McFadden said. “He said, ‘Listen, this is reality.’”
With the understanding that the crisis cannot logically abate until there is a vaccine, and that a vaccine requires a minimum of 18 months, McFadden said his district’s primary concern became the quality of the education all its students would receive via distance education.
“All schools in Nevada County closed March 15, then we quickly had to shotgun into distance learning,” McFadden said. “We were thrown into distance learning during crisis mode. It was about sustaining learning.”
CLEARING THE HURDLES
While other schools invested in plexiglass and temperature tests, McFadden said his district’s primary concern was the quality of the education all of its students would receive.
“Our most important thing is high quality instructional practice and high quality learning,” McFadden said, explaining the semantic switch from “distance learning” to “distance education.”
That is why the teachers in his district have worked diligently for the last three months to develop a comprehensive set of modules, trainings, online systems, curriculum, intervention assistance and tutoring, McFadden said.
“We always knew that distance education would be the component — or a component — to what we did in the fall,” he said. “We took a final look at all of our modules today and it’s incredibly robust, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
The teacher’s pudding will taste a little sweeter with collaborative efforts of the students, Aguilar Diaz said.
Aguilar Diaz said communication between her peers and their teachers varied across high school campuses last spring, but many students found the support they needed — academically and emotionally — from one another.
“Personally, at my school, there was good communication,” Aguilar Diaz said. “I heard from students at other schools that they did not have consistent contact with their teachers.”
The peer-to-peer resource is simple for those already connected on social media, Aguilar Diaz said.
“I was taking a math class and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I looked at the videos and I still don’t know how to do this,” she said. “We had this huge group chat where peers sent examples. It showed how connecting with peers was such a huge strength.”
Aguilar Diaz said seeing how her learning experience was formed and enriched by her peers was rewarding last spring, and she is eager to re-engage this fall.
“The teachers provided assignments, but we had to figure out how to learn at home, on our own, out of the classroom environment, so we used social media, text, or Zoom,” Aguilar Diaz said.
REACHING OUT TO CLASSMATES
Aguilar Diaz’s high school has fewer than 200 students and she regards the demarginalization of less participatory students as a personal responsibility. She said either teachers or students can be called upon to bring those less engaged into the fold.
“I’m a really social person,” Aguilar Diaz said. “It’s really hard to see students who are really quiet for different reasons — everyone has different personalities — but I think that leaders should reach out if they can.
“If teachers see that a student is not doing their work, or doing poorly because they don’t have any resources, they could reach out to some other students or to the student directly and say, ‘Hey, I see that you’re struggling,’ and if it’s a mental health thing offer them a program referral to counseling.”
Aguilar Diaz said one of the small parts of distance learning that she enjoys is the little class hangouts.
“You know at the beginning of class you do random chatter, and all of you are talking and the teacher comes inside and you settle down and class begins? In one of my Zoom classes our teacher kind of let us have that chatter over video call,” Aguilar Diaz said.
This casual interaction was the time when students shared that they were struggling, in varied capacities. Other students might share that they created a group chat to discuss an academic issue. Aguilar Diaz said she hopes students might find that space to share this fall.
“We didn’t close schools during the Spanish flu,” McFadden said. “We didn’t close schools during World War II, and suddenly we close schools in March and everything stops on a dime.”
McFadden said when campuses in his 2,700-student school district closed for two weeks in the spring, he realized how public education has been using the same delivery model in this country for the last 50 years.
Now, that every student in his district has access to a smart device and Wi-Fi via an at-home broadband connection, a school-provided hotspot or campus parking lots, McFadden said education is evolving.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for The Union. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Nevada Union High School assistant principal.
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