Moore: Identify need, find partners, build buzz — How Nevada got 100% of students online during COVID
Jonathan Moore | July 28, 2021
When Nevada’s school buildings closed in March 2020, the state’s 17 districts had varying abilities to support distance learning. A couple were well on their way, with quality instructional materials, access to devices and connectivity for students. But an overwhelming number of districts, including the largest one, Clark County School District, just didn’t have the infrastructure in place for teaching and learning remotely. But through the public and private partnerships formed by the state Department of Education to close opportunity gaps during the pandemic, Nevada is emerging from school closures with a much stronger ed tech infrastructure than it had before, advancing equity and access for all of our students.
The state was fortunate to receive an offer of help from a partner early on. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert and I had existing relationships with Renaissance’s myON, an online literacy platform, from previous positions we’d held. In April 2020, we were still trying to decide how to move forward for our students when Renaissance reached how they could help. With relief funding having not yet made it to schools, the company committed to temporarily providing myON at no cost; by June 2020, students and educators throughout Nevada had access to thousands of online books and news articles.
Part of the reason this happened so fast is that the governor issued an executive order streamlining the adoption process. Instead of going through several layers of review, we were able to flag the rollout as an emergency response to the pandemic, drastically shortening the process from several weeks to just days.
Part of the challenge the state faced, even with a generous partner, was that we knew the federal government was likely to provide emergency funds, but we didn’t know how much, when or what restrictions there would be on spending the money. In short, we knew we could launch the program, but we weren’t sure how we could sustain it beyond that. So we looked for partners to bring on board to expand this initiative beyond the Department of Education.
We began by reaching out to the Nevada State Library and Archives because it was already providing support and services to students and families throughout the state, from putting together packages of books and offering various mobile technologies so families could access the internet. It was a natural fit, so we asked them to start sharing information about myON along with their other offerings.
Next, we began working with our regional professional development program. We needed teachers to understand that myON was more than just a reading tool or online books, and to consider how they could leverage it for teaching and learning, given that the shift to remote classes was so abrupt and totally new to most of our teachers.
Finally, to inspire more excitement, we encouraged each school district and student to read as many minutes as possible through the READ Nevada partnership. To date, students have accessed more than 6 million digital books and read more than 58 million minutes. Meanwhile, my team and I began to address another statewide challenge: internet access.
Before the pandemic, about three of every four students in the state had a mobile device and access to home internet. But many were sharing a single device among multiple siblings or with parents. And entire communities didn’t have broadband internet at all.
A first step in improving access was to have districts identify the technology they already had that could be distributed to students. We knew that federal funding was coming through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that would allow us to buy the additional devices we needed. However, 49 other states were also looking to provide devices and connectivity for their students, and placing orders that wouldn’t arrive until the fall wasn’t going to help students who needed to learn now.
Fortunately, Gov. Steve Sisolak allowed Ebert to reorient the Nevada COVID-19 Response, Relief & Recovery Task Force to include Connecting Kids, an initiative to solve the issue of providing students with devices and access. The head of the task force, Jim Murren, and Elaine Wynn, former CEO of MGM Resorts and former president of the State Board of Education, really stepped up for our kids. They went so far as to use their private planes to transport devices from countries where they were manufactured to Nevada to skip the fraying supply lines and get devices into students’ hands.
Some students still lacked access to the internet, though. My department partnered with the Governor’s Office of Science Innovation and Technology to help districts distribute hotspots throughout the state, but there were still some students and communities we weren’t able to reach. Fortunately, people and organizations from all over the state stepped up to offer community access at schools, at local businesses or via school buses with wireless access. Only four months after the launch of Connecting Kids, 100 percent of Nevada students who were learning remotely had connectivity and access to a device.
The circumstances around our transformation from 75 percent to 100 percent connectivity were extraordinary, but the process is applicable beyond any crisis.
Begin with an inventory of what you already have and, crucially, what you need. Find partners with a genuine concern for kids and start a conversation about what you need and how they’re prepared to help. Partnerships with philanthropic organizations and businesses are important not just for what they can give students and teachers, but for how they can help leverage resources or provide access to powerful people or systems. Then, think about how to communicate with your stakeholders in a way that will get them invested, such as a contest to generate excitement. Next, measure the effectiveness of your implementation.
Finally, make sure to celebrate, because this is difficult work. It takes time, and celebrating those who’ve contributed as you reach milestones or achieve your ultimate goal will keep them engaged for the next push.
Dr. Jonathan Moore is deputy superintendent of student achievement at the Nevada Department of Education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.