Embracing data-driven, tech-enabled learning through COVID-19–and beyond

Like so many districts across the country, the Greenville Public School District (GPSD) in Mississippi faced the challenge this spring of quickly pivoting to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves recommended state-wide school closings on March 14, 2020, GPSD had closed for spring break on March 6, creating even more of a standstill for ramp-up efforts to put distance learning into motion.

Challenges faced in Spring 2020

There was an urgency in determining what existing tools could be used to seamlessly transition to our new normal of online learning. A means of monitoring student needs and communicating with parents was essential in creating a successful learning experience. Luckily, i-Ready instruction had already existed in the classrooms, so our shift to tech-enabled virtual teaching was a smooth process.

If not for our teachers and students already have a comfort level with i-Ready beforehand, and established best practices, we would have struggled to get the transition off the ground. Maintaining these consistent practices offered much-needed reliability amid all the other challenges and uncertainties.

Another important element of facilitating distance learning is communication with parents. It’s essential to help them understand what their child is working on, so they can offer support and encouragement. The i-Ready team was a major help in this regard, as well, as it provided numerous useful materials we could share with parents–not just worksheets, but other resources to explain what to expect from instruction.

To supplement our regular tools, we also integrated video instruction via Zoom. Because we had consistent insights into students’ progress data, we could identify which students needed additional support and set up instruction to address their needs. For teachers, the i-Ready Teacher Toolbox made it easy to assign videos to students that teachers could easily preview to meet the students’ specific needs.

Early preparation

In many respects, our preparation for a change in learning started before the pandemic even began. Our positions as Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer started simultaneously on July 1, 2019, and we immediately took to online learning efforts introduced a year earlier. i-Ready solutions had begun to take hold, but we initiated a more robust K-8 district-wide implementation when we arrived.

We increased our professional development (PD) offerings focusing on reading and used Ready print material along with i-Ready online learning. We set proficiency goals through mandatory 45-minute learning sessions to achieve a 70 percent rate of math achievement and by the time we reached mid-year diagnostic testing, we already observed a meaningful increase.

Plan for the fall

All districts face the challenges of addressing student learning during COVID-19, and we have worked tirelessly to devise reopening plans for teaching and learning for the 2020-21 school year. Over the past several months, we completed several surveys to help plan for the upcoming year. Our recent results indicate that most of our families are interested in virtual/online or hybrid learning.

It will be necessary to quickly identify and address learning gaps at the start of the school year. There may be learning loss, but we need to accelerate the learning, not just begin where students left off. Embedding standards and skills into regular, everyday instruction will be a focus for the new school year. Using data will be essential in identifying and filling the learning gaps. Documented work students completed with i-Ready during at-home learning exercises will allow us to gauge deficits and provide support accordingly.

Moving forward

Students, educators, families, and community members have experienced a great deal of trauma in recent months. Still, it’s rewarding to know that we can make a difference through good planning and instruction. All this time away from school has made students excited about the possibilities of future learning.

Additional PD provided by the district will give teachers the help they need during these transitional times. By increasing the teachers’ understanding of data-driven, tech-enabled learning, we can improve our ability to zoom in on individual student needs, regardless of the learning environment. In addition to teacher preparation, parents and all community members play a crucial part in the process.

As we work through the complexities of returning to school, it’s important to remember that it remains the district’s responsibility to outline the expectations necessary for educators, parents, and students to make the upcoming school year a success.