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Reflection on Distance Learning

On March 15, Governor Burgum ordered all schools in the state to close for one week to slow the spread of COVID-19. That Executive Order was quickly followed by a second one on March 22 that closed schools for the remainder of the year and requested distance learning plans from each district. While educators scrambled to convert the remainder of the year’s curriculum into a digital environment, district leaders were working to ensure that every child had a device and internet access to continue their learning from home. With very little time to prepare, limited resources, and a wide range of technical skills, we began distance learning in West Fargo Public Schools on April 1. Educators, students, and their families showed resilience and perseverance throughout these last months and for that I am extremely grateful. While not how we had imagined it, the 2019-20 school year did end, summer school and activities are now occurring in adjusted fashions, and we have started planning for the next school year.

As we look toward the fall, the one certainty is that these continue to be uncertain times in our community. With so many unknowns, we want to ensure that West Fargo Public Schools is prepared for whatever comes at us in the 2020-21 school year. To do that, we needed to know from staff and families alike, “How did we do with distance learning?”

Over the last month, our principals, assistant superintendents, and I have distributed surveys and conducted virtual forums with hundreds of people. These feedback experiences were so helpful, as they provided much-needed context and depth to what we had surmised ourselves: no student or educator had the same experience. For some, distance learning went extremely well and for others, not so much. For some, the workload was just right and for others, it was too little or too much. Some students thrived while others merely survived. What was it about our plans that we got right, and where did we miss the mark?

What Went Well?

First, both teachers and parents generally appreciated the flexibility afforded them. During the pandemic, many family schedules were less than normal and allowing flexibility in regards to meeting with the teacher, completing assignments, and doing the work provided families and educators the ability to continue to work and meet the needs of their family. Both educators and families also appreciated the opportunity to personalize instruction for the individual learner. Adjusting schedules to allow students to work at their own pace, show their learning in multiple ways, and provide voice and choice in the learning allowed some student to truly blossom. Although there was a lack of interpersonal face-to-face instruction, some families reported more communication and involvement in their child’s learning which proved to be extremely beneficial and rewarding. One parent shared she was more connected with her child’s special education teachers and therapists than she had ever been.

What Can Be Improved?

It was somewhat eye-opening to hear our families bring forth many of the same concerns brought to our attention by staff. Educators, students, and families struggled with juggling daily life and the demands of distance learning. Many parents were working from home, as were our teachers, but they were now responsible for also supporting their child’s education. Some of our parents worked outside the home and then when they got home, they had to work all night supporting their child on distance learning. That was also difficult. Although most families appreciated the flexible schedule, it did mean that students weren’t meeting as a class on a regular basis. Many students felt very isolated and missed their friends. Most families were very grateful and appreciative of the efforts of our staff to meet with their classroom virtually, but most prefer face-to-face, onsite learning. Our staff missed interacting with their colleagues.

With all this feedback, the tough question is now how we use it to guide our decisions. First, both educators and families desire more clarity around attendance, student engagement, academic expectations, and grading. This is an absolute must and those conversations are happening throughout the summer as we work with our teacher leaders and administration to plan. We know that relationships are key in the learning process, and building relationships happens early in the year. Whether we are back in school, distance learning, or a combination of the two, we know we will have to work hard to build strong relationships and create plans that are personalized for our students and the needs of their family. Staff report they have learned so much in the last three months about various platforms and distance learning strategies, and they are eager to learn more. Professional development will be key, and fortunately, the district had already launched a plan two years ago to personalize instruction for all students. COVID-19 certainly accelerated our plan, but that’s OK, we’re doing it!

I know I’ve said it a lot these last few months, but the sentiment remains strong and true: THANK YOU to all of our educators, students, families, and the broader community for your belief in our system and support throughout this pandemic. The crisis is not over. We will need to continue the communication, collaboration, and solution-oriented conversations to ensure students do not lose access to a quality education. As the district of choice, I know West Fargo Public Schools is ready to take on whatever challenges are in our future!

Superintendent Slette
(701) 356-2000