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This district is tapping into digital learning tools to chart a new post-pandemic learning path for its teachers and students

Our rural district’s 4 steps to a new post-pandemic learning reality


This district is tapping into digital learning tools to chart a new post-pandemic learning path for its teachers and students

Maintaining the continuity of student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been an extremely challenging feat for most school districts across the country. However, in the nation’s rural school systems, school administrators and teachers face a unique set of challenges. I believe that the way my school system is overcoming these challenges provides rural school districts a new blueprint for teaching and learning in the evolving COVID world.

My school system is located in Elko, Nevada, and like everyone else, we were impacted by COVID during 2020-2021. The Elko County School District covers 17,203 square miles of mountainous terrain and has major industries of ranching and gold mining. When our schools closed at the onset of the pandemic, providing all students with reliable access to the internet was our first priority. Next, we ensured all students had access to a suitable device, which in our district’s case, was a Chromebook.

While our school system was impacted by the first wave of COVID infections like many others, the second wave of COVID in the Fall of 2021 hit the community extremely hard. A massive surge of cases throughout the county created new challenges as students had to be quarantined at home for long periods due to COVID exposure. The uncertainty of whether a student would be in-person or remote from one day to the next remains a constant battle.

To win this battle, the Elko School District has taken steps to help alleviate the challenge of teaching in the COVID era and set a new direction for teaching and learning that I believe will long outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Step 1: Ensure continued access to devices and reliable internet

One of the biggest concerns in rural communities is internet connectivity and infrastructure reliability during school hours. The students who didn’t have access to the internet were issued a hotspot.  Keeping both teacher and student Chromebooks and hotspots up and running was a difficult task, and credit needs to be given to the Elko County School District Technology Department. They have worked tirelessly to repair broken Chromebooks and solve device issues.

In addition, a district helpline was offered to teachers, parents, and students to call if they needed technical assistance. I personally provided online tutorials on how to navigate Chromebooks, through the Family Engagement Center. All these efforts continue to operate to this day. 

Step 2: Continue to integrate digital content into instruction

The digital resources provided by the district and the state of Nevada came just in time to aid in and protect against learning interruptions during the pandemic. Moving forward, these aids continue to play a critical role in Elko’s instructional strategy.  

One of these digital resources that became available through the support of the Nevada Department of Education and the Nevada Gold Mines is the Discovery Education K-12 platform. Its vast library of digital content gives teachers a way to keep students engaged in learning in any environment. Discovery Education works with the Clever Portal, which allows teachers and students easy access to all of their technology resources, as well as Google Classroom and Canvas.  

Resources like these give rural school districts the ability to transport their students anywhere in the world and experience new ideas and meet new people. In one of our elementary third-grade classrooms, the teacher uses Discovery Education content to tour the world and help students understand different animal habitats in science. Our eighth-grade United States History students use the resource to create projects highlighting the Bill of Rights. High school teachers use Discovery Education’s new quiz tool to embed questions directly into the high-quality educational video. 

Integrating digital content has been a game changer for the district and we will continue to use these types of resources long after the pandemic is over. A big thank you to Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert and Nevada Gold Mines for your support to keep Nevada learning!

Step 3: Continue educators’ professional learning

As the first wave of the pandemic was felt in the Fall of 2020, we found that while some of our previous formal professional learning was very useful, teachers lack the time necessary to attend these sessions.  We realized quickly that teachers needed just-in-time help and training rather than formal professional learning opportunities. These just-in-time supports included a helpdesk phone line, email, chat, and Google Meet help sessions. This level of support continued this year because I found the most powerful way to help teachers use all their new edtech tools was to have on demand support. I believe we will continue this professional learning “lifeline” long after the pandemic.

We also have plans to continue our formal professional learning efforts in the future. The Discovery Education Ambassador Cohort will help our educators learn how to move students from being content consumers to digital creators, and additional professional development will follow on Nearpod and Pear Deck.  Beyond these school-sponsored workshops, teachers have the opportunity to take graduate-level courses on integrating technology into their curriculum. In partnership with Southern Utah University, I can offer graduate-level professional development courses where teachers receive graduate-level credit for investing time into an educational technology course. As the pandemic continues to evolve, we will continue to find new ways formally and informally for our educators to upskill our teachers.

Step 4: Focus on 21st century learning 

This school year, our school system placed a focus on integrating the 4 C’s (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity) of 21st-century learning into our now technology-rich classrooms. One strategy we used to achieve this was using digital choice boards, which give students choices on how they want to learn about a specific topic. Choice boards allow for student voice and choice, and make students more accountable for their learning. We also used playlists, HyperDocs, and learning menus to integrate the 4 C’s into our curriculum and inspire students to use technology tools in transformative ways.  

Another way our educators worked to help students develop 21st-century skills is through a teacher-led study of the book Tasks Before Apps by Monica Burns, which focuses on creation, curiosity, and collaboration. During this book study, teachers developed ways to design the task first and then find technology tools that supported the learning. Thanks to this effort, teachers are empowered to use new, authentic assessments to demonstrate creativity, curiosity, and collaboration.  Teachers are finding that by giving students a real-world experience with genuine projects and an authentic audience, students are more invested in the learning process and strive to achieve. 

Like all other school systems, rural school districts of the U.S. are focused on helping students build the skills needed for success in 21st-century careers. Jobs are changing. For example, jobs in our area gold mines require miners to know more about technology than ever before. As educators, we must prepare our students with the skills they need for future success.  COVID-19 has been a terrible blow to our nation. In Elko County, we are dedicated to overcoming this terrible event and to finding new ways to apply what we learned during this difficult time to how we teach our students so that they leave our district more prepared for an unknown future than ever before.

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