The Region 15 Comprehensive Center, part of the federally-funded Comprehensive Center Network, is facilitating ongoing Community of Practice meetings that focus on rural education issues. State education agency staff, district and school leadership, and education associations from Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah have been meeting to share experiences from their states and ideas for meeting schooling challenges.
WestEd’s Senior Professional Learning Specialist Barbara Jones has been developing newsletters to share highlights and insights from these meetings. The following text is from Jones’ August 21, 2020 newsletter, following a conversation on the topic of reopening schools.
The Role of SEL and Data in Informing Next Steps
In late August, our group held our monthly community-of-practice meeting, which focused on, 1) the social emotional learning needs of students, their families, and education staff, and 2) the use of local data to inform reopening school plans.
As usual, participants joined from Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California to share their knowledge, questions, strength, and hope with one another to collectively raise our ability to meet the emergent needs of our rural communities. At this time, participants’ minds were tuned into the immediate challenges and opportunities rising out of recent actions related to racial justice, ongoing covid management, and wildfires across many of our states. When people shared what they appreciated learning the past week, responses included a variety of new strategies, wit, and reflections.
“We partnered with a therapist to provide teletherapy services for our rural youth… and we might get MIPS funding! A gap in support in our area, so this is a big deal!”
“I learned that you can order St. Louis style gooey butter cake on etsy!”
“The appreciation of the smell of rain in the morning after not having any rain for months.”
Julie Duffield then started off the discussion on social emotional learning by sharing the work of CASEL and their SEL roadmap to reopening schools. This roadmap includes, for example, knowing SEL critical practices, essential questions, and how to sustain work over time.
She also shared results from a survey CASEL conducted with state agency staff. The survey identified a range of challenges state agency staff have for following the roadmap and making SEL a priority in their states. The top challenges include:
- Needing more trained/certified staff in schools, districts, and state agencies
- Focus on academics
- Protecting funds available for SEL
- Difficulty with SEL distance learning strategies
- Needing more time to focus on SEL
The heart of the meeting were two presentations, one focused on data-use and the other on SEL. The presenters were:
- Evangelyn Visse, Associate Superintendent Nye County School District, and
- Christina Pate, Senior Associate at WestEd, and Deputy Director, National Center to Improve Social & Emotional Learning, and School Safety.
Using Local Data
Evangelyn (Evy) Visse started off her presentation talking about the geography of Nye County to better contextualize their use of data. At close to 20,000 square miles, Nye County is situated between Death Valley and Las Vegas in the lower part of Nevada. The most remote schools in the district are a five and a half hour drive from Pahrump, where the majority of the population in the county lives. The district includes three one-room schools.
To support decisions around reopening schools, the district has begun using the Harvard Global Health Initiative model which identifies COVID-19 risk by county and local region. Below is a graphic of Nevada counties, color coded by risk level and a report for Nye county of key COVID-19 suppression metrics and an identified risk level for the county.
The local daily data on these metrics has helped the district create differentiated reopening plans based on the risk for different areas in its district. For example, Duckwater Elementary School, one of the most remote schools in the district, is holding in-person class four days a week, while a greater emphasis on online instruction is in place for the more highly populated Pahrump. Just this past week, California started using a similar system, implementing a color-coded county tracking system to determine when schools can open for in-person instruction. A table was created to organize the region-specific information the Nye County school district uses to make ongoing, informed decisions about the status of remote vs. in-person learning throughout their county.
Evy then spoke about the challenge of meeting the state standards for low risk due to the sparse access to testing for many residents, a significant issue in rural communities. Low testing numbers particularly impact the positivity rate which needs to be below 7%. In talking about the role of different sources of data to inform decision making, Evy said,
“I feel like we’re in the sea after a shipwreck and we’re not sure with data whether it’s a lifeboat or if it’s a flotsam that is hanging out there and may not be that helpful.”
Different State Perspectives
Participants then shared in state-alike groups how this information resonated with their own experiences. All the groups discussed how frequently changing data and recommendations from health agencies require districts and states to maintain ongoing flexibility and the willingness to adapt plans as needed. In California, participants discussed the impact of the wildfires on school plans. For example, while many rural schools had begun the year nearly all in-person or with a hybrid plan, they’ve had to switch to primarily online schooling in response to the fires. Many schools are also being used as evacuation centers which raises the concern of COVID-19 infections in those locations. In Nevada, participants shared about how the Duckwater Shoshone tribe and BIE schools are working to align their plans with state recommendations. The Shoshone tribal office is also working with Eureka technology to address connectivity issues. Below are some reflections from the chat.
“We are working to change the assumption that everyone has computer access and getting resources to families via Tribal Nation radio and via social media. We also use Tribal Nation Chapter Houses and local resources, however that is not always effective since many tribes are in crisis mode, feeling overwhelmed and not having the capacity to handle it all.”
“Utah’s Legislature appropriated $4 million to ensure that students in one of Utah’s most rural counties had internet access. This is San Juan County, one of the state’s COVID hot zones.”
“Our group talked about a pretty high percentage of new superintendents in Utah that had to onboard quickly under very difficult circumstances.”
Focus on Social Emotional Learning
Christina Pate then presented on the importance of social emotional learning. We discovered, through a poll, that many CoP participants currently feel “somewhat” prepared to handle the current set of challenges but also have a high degree of stress looking towards what may come over the next few weeks and months. Christina turned our attention to what she termed, Two Crisis, Two Narratives. The crises come first from the environmental forces of COVID-19 and wildfires, and secondly from the human forces of racism and police brutality. For many, she says, the loss of proximity to school support networks during this time results in anxiety, fear, and stress. For some others, this greater distance results in increased agency, purpose, and leadership. There is no single narrative that represents all our responses. Christina continued on to say that,
“Many students and staff actually thrived during this time away from school because school environments may not have been safe and supportive places before the pandemic or before the social unrest.”
All of these factors should be taken into consideration, she says, when returning to school and establishing a new normal. When we envision our best case scenario moving forward, Christina asks us to keep the following logic in mind as our “north star” to guide our progress.
As we consider how to establish our schools and communities as safe spaces, she advises that there is a three step framework called “The Three Rs” that can guide our interactions. The key is they need to be done in order! The three steps are as follows.
- Regulate: physically and emotionally calm and settled
- Relate: socially and emotionally connected through safe and supportive relationships attuned to needs
- Reason: ready and able to engage in teaching and learning
When educators follow this process, they and students are more likely to be able to access and engage their “learning brains”. This occurs when individuals feel physically safe and emotionally calm and settled.
In a poll during the meeting, participants said overall that they feel “somewhat prepared” to build and maintain healthy relationships remotely and that on average they don’t know if their school or district has a training plan in place to address the dysregulation we will face this fall. Christina suggests that in supporting students’ emotional regulation it is important to keep in mind that children and adults frequently use different strategies to achieve and maintain regulation, as do people of different cultures and genders.
To begin this effort of establishing safe spaces and supporting students’ emotional regulation, she suggests that one should listen first, then co-develop a plan in partnership with students, families, and staff. During this time, it is also key to use one’s own metacognition to notice personal biases that may be unconsciously informing interpretations and decision making.
She cautions that to do this work, educators and education leaders must first ensure that they are attending to their own physical and emotional well-being in order to be of service to others. Christina calls this self-care “an ethical imperative.” In interactions with students over the last several months, the prevailing opinion she and her colleagues heard was that students’ value educators’ and leaders’ well-being and ability to show up authentically. They understand that educators may not know what will happen later but focusing on what they can control and change right now is helpful. Overall, transparency, empathy, and demonstrating vulnerability is more important than “getting it right”.
Making Sense of It All
At the end of the CoP meeting, participants reflected on the presentations and their earlier conversations. They considered what they were already doing well, what their priorities and challenges are, and what next steps they can take. Here are some ideas participants identified in the various small group discussions. Note: different groups focused on different questions so the examples here do not represent the opinions of the larger group as a whole.
What we are already doing well
- Communicating with stakeholders
- Creating common messaging across the county
- Using the school leader set aside at the state level to support the SEED program. Goal: make it sustained by the state and ensure that it is accessible across the state
What our priorities are
- LEAs can pool resources together into a consortia
- Help Rural LEAs understand the opportunity Title IV-A provides for SEL and Effective Use of Technology. Explore the creation of Title IV-A Consortia
- Make sure people have a firm understanding of how Title I can support SEL –it doesn’t have to be just reading and math
- Help others build capacity to access funds –not just know they are available
- Look to other tribes who have done this before (accessing funds) so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel
What our challenges are
- Using metrics consistently; it’s difficult to decide when to return in-person
- Getting everyone on the same page and taking the situation seriously
- Understanding requirements
- Figuring out the right level of support, where can we create more flexibility for LEAs that is supported
- Parents protesting masks; situation more volatile than expected; probably everything will have to go back to virtual over mask dispute
- Push back coming from teachers; in-person classes in district had over 100 teachers call in sick, closed down everything; parents concerned schools not open, then protesting this
- A local mayor resigned because they implemented a citywide mask requirement and then received death threats; situation due to state not taking lead and establishing requirements to support schools and towns
What action steps we can take now
- Next week all ECSD staff will have PD on SEL
- Creating a space for teachers to express their own needs, whether they are SEL or academically related
- Go in each teacher’s classroom on a daily, or every two day, basis to check on them and ask how it’s going. Just listen. Need to make sure we continue to check on teachers as well as classified staff
Partner with bigger more urban LEAs or regionals or non-profits to help with writing grants
Barbara Jones is a Senior Professional Learning Expert at WestEd. For more information about her work, please contact her at [email protected].