Remote challenge: How Santa Fe is delivering in pandemic

The New Mexico district will soon be going back to full virtual instruction. For most schools, that would be bad news. But not for this technology team.
By: | November 11, 2020
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Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico have again ended their foray into face-to-face instruction. COVID-19 numbers are off the charts, and Superintendent Veronica Garcia says the volunteer hybrid model will be on “hiatus” until further notice.

That means this hard-hit district will be forced into a window of learning that has paralyzed many others across the U.S. in 2020 – 100% remote instruction. But it is ready for it.

Santa Fe’s experiment with virtual technology so far has been something of a marvel. It has managed to connect students en masse – from the mountains to the mobile home parks – while bringing parents on board with the transition to digital. In Santa Fe, that means delivering the technology to large numbers of low-income families, one of the many barriers that make the digital divide so daunting.

During a three-week lockdown in March, however, Santa Fe had a trial run with the all-remote space and a small miracle happened: 98% of students were able to log on that first week.

How many districts, even now after months of planning and retooling, can say that?

“It was higher than our attendance on face-to-face days,” says Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for Santa Fe Public Schools. “It was kind of surprising.”

The power behind Santa Fe

In some respects, it was indeed surprising. Given the logistics, the scope of the task and the pandemic, few districts anywhere have been prepared for that shift. But in some ways, knowing a little about the leaders in Santa Fe and the smart moves the district made leading up to that moment, it wasn’t a stretch to think they could pull it off.

Tom Ryan certainly thought it was plausible.

Prior to his arrival, Ryan was the CIO for 11 years in Albuquerque. He was the president of the esteemed Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) Board and is still active with the Council of Great City Schools. He is also a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Education. There are not many who have the kind of handle on school technology needs like he does. And there aren’t many who could understand the magnitude of the task he and his team were about to take on.

Combine that know-how with the savviness of a district that smartly turned education technology funds into tangible technology power, and Santa Fe built a framework for success well before the pandemic hit. It turned those dollars into a robust fiber network that connected all of its classrooms and a wireless infrastructure that blanketed all of its schools. It purchased Chromebooks for all sixth through 12 graders and had carts of them in classrooms for lower grades. So on that fateful day in March, there was no panic, just a mission to be fulfilled.

“When it was looking like we were going to close schools, we got together with our cabinet and put together a plan to distribute all of our elementary computers out of the carts,” Ryan said. “We were concerned that we weren’t going to be coming back. Then the governor made the announcement: we’re going to have three weeks in lockdown. So, the question was, can we do it? And I said yes.

“And my team that next morning distributed devices to all kindergarten through fifth grade students. We also provided Wi Fi hotspots to any family that requested one. Of course, we’re in the mountains, some of our communities don’t have good Wi Fi.”

And still, most everyone got in. The plan worked. So Ryan and his team partnered with the Teaching & Learning counterparts and started to forge the next piece – professional development for teachers. And they leaned on a team of digital technology coaches – 15 strong for 12,000 students – to get everyone on board with instruction.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” Ryan says. “Most of the other school districts in the state stayed closed.”

Santa Fe had been chugging along until this week. Now, unfortunately, it will have to pivot and do it all over again.

A vision for the future

What made Santa Fe’s plan so successful was its vision. The decision to spend money early on infrastructure instead of devices – which don’t last forever – helped put it in better position to handle other elements during the pandemic.

The support for teachers, students and parents also were critical. Ryan says the district focused on how well some teachers were instructing and how receptive some students were to those lessons by capturing them on video.

“At every board meeting, we brought a 3-5-minute montage of special ed teachers, bilingual teachers, physical education, and art teachers, and students working in groups all through these remote environments. We were showing it could be done … look at how this is working.”

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From there, the strong professional development plan was unveiled to teach educators for one week how to instruct remotely. The district got principals on board to learn as well.

“We started looking at these as permanent changes,” Ryan says. “So they’re not just doing this to get through the next couple months, they’re recognizing, we’ve got to learn new skills with our kids. What do we need to do for the next 6 to 18 months?”

With internet and devices largely in place, they developed single sign-ons for users, opened up a help desk for parents and even developed a drive-up service for repairs of devices. The popularity of it, combined with the forethought of facing rough weather, led Ryan and his team to begin building a drop-off window and overhang “so our techs aren’t out in the rain and snow to support devices.”

The goal, no matter what, has been to keep the system operating smoothly because as Ryan says, we “didn’t want to be a victim to the fluidity of the virus.”

Now, that statement seems pretty prophetic.

“We didn’t know what the virus was going to do,” Ryan said. “We didn’t want to design a system to turn that system off and the next one on and then off again. So, we built a system that can transition kids from face to face or fully online or anything in between.”

They are continuing to tweak as they go, looking always at internet connectivity. Santa Fe is able to view every kid’s connection speed, how they’re connected, whether they are on cellular or cable and who they’re provider is. It’s that sort of detail that has helped set them apart and set them up to adjust quickly.

No matter what happens, they can always keep that system running, remote or not.

“We designed our system with the expectation, from now on, parents will have a choice on whether they want to educate their kids face to face, hybrid or online,” Ryan said. “Kids will always be one to one. So, let’s start redesigning our facility, our supports, not reacting to, but embracing the new future.”


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