Not a whole lot of learning going on

And that’s okay. But be honest about it, say advocates.

girl at desk writing
(Photo from Pixabay)

Anytime Kristan Nigro sees that at least 60 percent of her kindergarteners have logged on to her virtual classroom, she considers it a success. “Hey, it’s more than half,” the Schorr Elementary School teacher quips proudly.

These are the tapered expectations of a public school teacher trying to navigate the role of an educator amid a statewide shutdown, which for schools began on March 16 and will continue until at least April 30.

Nigro says much of what kindergarteners learn is “hand over hand” and requires a physical presence, but she is trying to adapt to a digital learning environment. She has held virtual classroom sessions — first using the video conferencing platform Zoom, then using Google Meet after the district banned the use of Zoom over privacy concerns. Her latest lesson was about the lifecycle of a butterfly.

Whether Nigro’s experience is typical or an outlier of the overall implementation of distance education at Clark County School District during the state-mandated shutdown is unclear. That’s because the school district has left it to individual schools to decide whether to attempt virtual teaching during the shutdown.

Several CCSD teachers who spoke to the Current said they aren’t doing instruction at all and have been directed by their administrations to do the bare minimum required by the state, which is to “make contact” with each student once per week and to “be available” during normal school hours.

The Review-Journal on Wednesday reported that 257,486 of the 325,081 students — about 79 percent — were contacted by their teachers during the first week of distance education. That means 1-in-5 students weren’t contacted by a teacher.

Even if they had been: Does that mean any learning is taking place?

It’s unclear if CCSD is tracking anything beyond the points of contact they are required to log by the state. “As every school community is unique, schools may choose to have additional options for delivering instruction,” stated the district in an emailed response to questions from the Current regarding inconsistencies in learning opportunities at different schools and the implementation of distance education overall.

The district also said that “instructional resources provide an opportunity for students to engage in learning opportunities to practice concepts and skills; therefore, these practice opportunities should not be graded.”

“The reality on the ground is that the access to remote learning is very uneven,” says Sylvia Lazos, an education advocate. “When you see unevenness, immediately the red flag goes up. Are our poorest kids and most vulnerable kids getting the short end of the stick? I don’t think we have the data, but it’ll be important going forward. Who has been able to tune in? Who has been able to keep up with any kind of instruction?”

On March 23, CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara told school board trustees during an emergency meeting that the district could not guarantee quality education to all students because of the technological barriers, such as lacking access to a computer or internet. Later that week he would sign and submit to the state a statement saying that the district “will make best efforts to offer distance education to pupils.”

That “best effort” has included the purchase of thousands of Chromebooks to distribute to students and opportunities for free or low-cost internet access through Cox Communications. The district is prioritizing graduating seniors. However, it acknowledges that even with those efforts there are still “as many as 72,000 children in our community without the tools necessary for their continued learning.”

One third-grade teacher at a low-income elementary school told the Current his school cannot afford to check out Chromebooks because they may not get them back. He’s also been advised not to attempt virtual classroom meetings.

That teacher, as well as the district as a whole, have been promoting third-party resources as learning opportunities for students. Many schools already had access to web-based educational apps. Vegas PBS is airing educational content for children to watch. Communities in Schools, The Public Education Foundation and Spread the Word Nevada partnered to assemble and distribute 10,000 kits that included STEM workbooks and reading books to at-risk students. Thousands of educational packets have been handed out at the food distribution sites that provide free breakfast and lunch for students.

The approach of throwing every possibility at the wall and seeing what sticks is necessary, most agree, given the unprecedented nature of the school shutdown.

“Do I think it’s the most academic? No. But we’re just trying to survive right now,” said Nigro.

“It’s impossible to mirror what was happening in schools,” said Rebecca Garcia, the president of the Nevada Parent Teachers Association, during an education-focused live-stream event earlier this week. “We need to have realistic expectations. Digital learning is happening in different ways in different places.”

Felicia Ortiz, who sits on the state board of education, says maintaining contact should be the highest expectation during the shutdown. She sees the contact points as a check-in on people’s physical, mental and emotional health.

“We’ll get through the rest of it later,” she says. “It won’t be the end of the world if (a student) doesn’t learn multiplication this year. We’ll figure it out. We catch kids up all the time.”

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.