Navigating through tough times: Archuleta School District addresses transition to distance learning

By Chris Mannara
Staff Writer
As students have transitioned to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Archuleta School District (ASD) has taken a variety of measures to ensure that the transition has been smooth for staff and students.
ASD will continue to practice distance learning through at least April 17 following Gov. Jared Polis signing an executive order on March 18 suspending in-person learning in public and private schools from March 23 through April 17.
ASD has provided Chromebooks to all students at all levels, ASD Superintendent Linda Reed explained in an email on March 24.
The district also loaned 30 Chromebooks to Pagosa Peak Open School (PPOS), Reed added.
ASD is also working to get outdoor Wi-Fi access points set up so that Pagosa Springs High School Students (PSHS) can download their work and take it home; even if they don’t have Internet access where they live, Reed explained.
“Additionally, Centerpointe Church has kindly directed their WiFi access towards their front entrance so that students can drive up and download what they need to work at home and then upload it when completed,” she wrote.
Working partially as ASD’s information technology (IT) contracting lead and as the Archuleta County Broadband Services Technical Manager, Eric Hittle of Echo IT Consulting outlined some of the work done in an email to The SUN on March 27.
“Early on, when we at ECHO IT realized the possibility of having to send Chromebooks home with students for distance learning was likely, we recognized that universal access for all student families was going to be an issue,” Hittle wrote.
From there, Hittle explained that he contacted Colorado’s state broadband director, Tony Neal-Graves, to gather contacts for CenturyLink, one of the larger incumbent providers.
Hittle added that he also reached out to representatives from Archuleta County providers Visionary Communications and Zito Media.
“James Rigas, President of Zito in Pennsylvania, was very receptive and he and his board came up with a very good program for both low income students, and non-student families the very next day,” Hittle explained.
This program gives access to its 20-by-2 megabit Internet service free of charge for two months to low-income residents, according to a press release from Zito Media.
To qualify for the service, residents must provide documentation that their household qualifies for an income-tested government program such as Medicaid or housing assistance.
Residents must also not have any outstanding debt to Zito for the previous year, have not been a Zito Internet customer for the previous 60 days and reside in a Zito service area.
Once the two months of free service expires, the price adjusts to $24.95 per month and customers can disconnect service at any time.
Because ASD also has students that are from Dulce, N.M., Hittle also reached out to a state representative to get in touch with a representative from Dulce’s lone Internet provider, Windstream, Hittle explained.
Windstream offers what are called Lifeline benefits. Those who wish to see if they qualify for benefits can visit www.lifelinesupport.org.
“Visionary has also come up with a program that will be administered via the School District to connect eligible students without Internet to their fixed wireless network at a reduced cost as well,” Hittle wrote.
Principal perspective
For Pagosa Springs Middle School (PSMS) Principal Chris Hinger, the transition to distance learning was smooth as teachers planned for the shift on March 13.
Following the deployment of about 500 Chromebooks to students, Hinger explained that almost all of PSMS teachers and students use Google’s education platform.
“Teachers regularly use this online platform to assign learning activities and often assess students as well. During the four days before spring break, students engaged in daily learning activities, utilized office hours where they conferences with staff and completed various learning tasks,” he wrote in an email to The SUN on March 27. “We gathered feedback from students and parents and have revised and developed grade level distance learning procedures to kick off the last quarter of the year.”
PSMS had little training to do in order to make the shift to distance learning due to the school using a local Google certified trainer for a couple of years, Hinger explained.
“The challenge now and will be the topic of training in the future is how to best actively teach using various online tools,” he wrote. “Challenges like this always bring with them opportunities to grow. We have the opportunity to evolve our teaching repertoire during this time and become masters of both in-person teaching and online teaching. “
However, the transition to distance learning has not been without its challenges, Hinger explained, citing students who don’t have Internet access and student engagement.
“Our teachers and students are accustomed to face-to-face, in-person teaching and learning. Teachers are masterful at student engagement and have numerous strategies to get students to lean in to their learning,” he wrote. “Students are used to this time of learning environment and respond. Distance learning depends greatly on the student engaging on their own based on their motivation.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic causing stress for the whole community, PSMS is working to support student learning and providing the best distance-learning opportunities, Hinger explained.
“We will also need to have tremendous understanding for the various family situations out there during this difficult time,” he wrote. “I’m very proud of how digitally savvy our staff is and how smoothly we were able to transition to distance learning. I also commend our IT department for creating such a rock solid online learning platform to use in school and outside of school.”
For Pagosa Springs Elementary School (PSES) Principal Justin Cowan, the switch to distance learning required an “all hands on deck” approach.
PSES maintenance staff as well as Assistant Principal Chantelle Jordan and ASD Assistant Superintendent Laura Mijares began the process of assigning Chromebooks to students, Cowan explained in an email to The SUN on March 28.
“This freed me to meet with each team throughout the entire day and deploy their plan of action. The challenges included teachers learning digitized platforms, preparing learning packets for all kids, and teaching school at the same time,” Cowan wrote. “The challenges revealed the character of my staff; they were simply ready to move forward and put in the extra time and effort to ensure their kids education continued.”
Training for online learning for PSES staff required two stages, according to Cowan.
These steps included a brainstorming session on remote learning and demonstrations of online platforms for video creation and online delivery of content, Cowan explained.
Following that step, Cowan explained that on March 16 he heard each grade level team present its plan for distance learning.
“Our media specialist recorded each team’s needs, then spent the remainder of their planning with them to teach them how to use the platforms they determined would work best for their students,” he wrote. “Given these two stages of training, we then relied upon each other for advice and technical knowledge as we put together our plans. Having very tech-savvy staff sped this process along.”
Throughout the entire process, Cowan described himself as being grateful for the information flow from Reed, as well as the help and support from the other members of the ASD and PSES team in getting Chromebooks into students’ hands.
Cowan also praised PSES’s custodial staff for their job keeping the school clean, as well as ASD’s transportation and food service team for delivering meals to students during the pandemic.
“I am blessed to work with a staff who immediately began planning, learning, and teaching at the same time. This could have been a frantic time; instead it was a time we came together in a systematic manner to put together a ‘Care Reigns Here’ approach to continue our kids’ learning,” he wrote. “It was exhausting, but we did it and will continue to do so. Now, my concerns turn to our parents. They are in a tough situation as their world just got more complicated overnight.”
Pagosa Springs High School (PSHS) Principal Sean O’Donnell wrote in an email on March 30 that PSHS has done the best it can given the conditions.
“One of the obvious challenges is internet access for all of our students. We have made the technology (i.e Chromebooks) available, but internet access is still a requirement to access much of the content,” he wrote. “We are trying to work individually with students to provide alternative ways to complete coursework if students are not able to get online.”
PSHS staff is currently learning as they go in regard to an online learning environment, O’Donnell explained.
Fortunately, most PSHS teachers were already using Google Classroom as a way to instruct and distribute content, O’Donnell explained.
“I am proud of the staff in our district for their professionalism, responsiveness, and flexibility during this unfortunate turn of events. We know things will not be perfect, but we will strive to do the very best we can for all the students in our school community,” he wrote.
Pagosa Peak Open School (PPOS) Director Angela Crossland explained that the transition for the charter school has been going well.
“With it being a huge change for the staff, families, and students I have encouraged us to all have patience and grace with each other,” she wrote in an email to The SUN on March 31.
PPOS has been utilizing paper packets that include choice activities that students can do for each subject, Crossland noted.
Additionally, PPOS has also conducted office hours via Zoom as well as prerecorded music, cooking and art lessons, she explained.
“As a school that focuses on Project Based Learning and Place-based education, the transition has been big for us,” she wrote. “Teachers were trained to use Google Classroom as well as Zoom for online platforms to help facilitate the online portion of our distance learning.”
Food distribution
Reed noted that ASD will continue its food distribution program through April 17 as well.
More information on that program can be found at the district’s website, www.mypagosaschools.com.

This story was posted on April 7, 2020.