Rising to the challenge: NH’s largest school district reflects on remote learning

by Sarah Earle

Photo from the Manchester School District's Facebook Page.

In March, when Gov. Sununu issued his first emergency order shutting down in-person schooling, Manchester educators, like everyone else, hoped that life would return to normal within a few weeks. With any luck, remote learning, however imperfect, would be a fleeting experiment. Nearly five months later, as the district prepares to re-open remotely amid a pandemic that remains untamed on a national scale, it’s clear that “normal” will be out of reach for a while longer, and online learning isn’t going away anytime soon. 

Instead of closing the book on one of the most challenging periods of their careers, educators now find themselves revisiting it for guidance going forward. In Manchester, the state’s largest and most diverse school district, it was a period that underscored inequities, proved the value of community connections, thoughtful leadership, and thorough planning, and redefined concepts of success. 

“It’s a huge puzzle, and we’re still trying to figure out how to make it all work,” said Jennifer Gillis, Assistant Superintendent for the Manchester School District. “But it was an absolute work from the heart from a team who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we needed to do it, and we needed to do it right.” 

“It really showed us the power of planning.” 

Across the state, the pandemic exposed existing educational disparities and created new ones. All districts had similar challenges: continuing meal distribution, getting technology into students’ hands and ensuring they could use it, and providing individualized support to students who had special needs or who were struggling under the new model. But in Manchester, the scope of these challenges was enormous. 

An urban district that serves 14,000 students, Manchester operates on a tight budget, spending just $12,000 per pupil in the 2018-19 school year, the lowest rate in the state. Rates of free and reduced lunch eligibility, a common measure of poverty, are as high as 86% in the district’s 22 schools, and about 15% of students are English language learners. 

If the pandemic took them by surprise, the district was not unprepared for such an emergency. A few years ago, administrators created a district-wide emergency operations (EOP) plan that addresses crises including pandemics and forced school closures, said Gillis, who supervises school operations. 

“It gave us a framework of what we needed to be thinking about … and impacted our ability to be as quick as we were able to be,” she said.

Within the first week of remote learning, the district had 33 buses running across all segments of the city, delivering meals, technology, and learning materials. Over time, the deliveries were streamlined and the number of buses pared back, but by the end of June, the district had delivered 240,000 meals, Gillis said. Four buses are running throughout the summer, delivering 1,800 breakfasts and lunches per week. 

“It’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” Gillis said. 

The emergency operations plan was also critical in getting clear and consistent messaging out to families and in mobilizing teams to handle problems as they arose. 

“The EOP that we built years ago, never thinking we’d be in this situation — the trust that we built, the checklist, the systems, the balance that you can strike much quicker — it really showed us the power of planning,” Gillis said.

“It takes a village.”

Every Tuesday and Wednesday evening for the past several years, about 100 4th-12th grade students gathered at Hillside Middle School for sports, dance, art, homework help, and educational activities organized by BRING-IT, a youth organization created especially for students from diverse backgrounds. 

When the pandemic closed schools, as well as school-related programming, BRING-IT staff wondered whether the families they worked with would have access to important information. They immediately started sharing official school communications on their own Instagram account, where they knew young people in their program were likely to see it. 

That’s just one of the many ways community groups coordinated with the schools to strengthen the support system for students during remote learning. 

“Manchester’s a very intricate puzzle, and I think one of the absolute gems here is the community partnerships,” said Gillis, who meets weekly with a community collaborative group consisting of city agencies, non-profits and businesses. 

Along with keeping families informed and connected, BRING-IT staff made themselves available for academic support and any other challenges that arose. 

“We kind of decided as a team that this might be the new normal, and we need to start thinking about how we can help our kids,” said Douglas LeClerc, interim program manager for BRING-IT and an English Language Learner teacher at McDonough Elementary School. “We’re all working with the same kids. How can we work together as a team? It’s like the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’”

That village also helped ensure students were fed and had access to resources. The Boys and Girls Club and YMCA helped get food to families, and Southern New Hampshire University stepped in to provide meals on the weekends. 

Prior to the pandemic, Kelly Jobel, an educator for the Manchester School District who has led and participated in equity work in the district, ran community engagement initiatives to identify where the greatest needs were and design solutions. That work took on new meaning after schools closed. This summer, the district’s summer learning program — which is operating remotely in a combined model — coordinated with other summer programming around the city to connect students to opportunities and resources, such as the city’s new bookmobile, which brings library books directly to neighborhoods through a partnership with the public library. 

“That was one of the best things was seeing the community say, ‘how can we help?’” Jobel said. 

Students became part of the support systems as well. Two high school students started a program called Operation Lemonade, creating public service announcements, running a student help desk, and working with local agencies to distribute feminine hygiene products to families in need through local agencies. 

“The students were so insightful and inspiring,” said Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen. “They just felt like they needed to do something.” 

“Those basic needs come first.”

As the school year came to a close, schools began assessing their remote learning outcomes through formal channels such as surveys and data analysis as well as informal reflection and conversation. 

Data sent to the NH Department of Education showed that students in some Manchester schools had much higher levels of engagement than in others and underscored the disparities between those schools. 

Those numbers were somewhat misleading because they didn’t account for students who were completing work on paper instead of online in any given day, Allen explained. 

Nor do data snapshots tell the whole story, educators say. 

Students don’t have the capacity to learn if needs such as food and a sense of security aren’t being met, Gillis said. “Those basic needs come first. I measure our success in the early days of the pandemic in being able to satisfy those basic needs,” Gillis said.

The district made strides in other ways that are difficult to measure as well. 

For example, teachers grew much more comfortable with technology, said Jobel, recalling a kindergarten teacher who didn’t even like writing letters on the computer prior to the pandemic and within weeks had completely embraced online learning. “She did an absolutely amazing job,” she said.

The remote learning period also gave teachers new insights into their students and their families. “I think we built a lot of really good parent connections during that time,” Jobel said.

“I’ve got to have everybody at the table to learn.”

Though uncertainties abound, educators say the remote learning period provided them valuable lessons that will aid them in the coming school year and revealed challenges that still need to be addressed.

“We were able to overcome a lot of the barriers to technology, but we still lost a lot of students in that environment,” Allen said. As remote learning continues in various ways, the district will have to continue looking for ways to get more students engaged, she said, and to provide the right balance between structure and flexibility. 

Richard Dichard, principal of West High School, wants to develop clearer protocols for what’s expected of students, including a face-to-face component so teachers know their students are actually online. 

He also thinks uniformity and a robust training program in which students have to demonstrate they know how to use the technology is critical. “Once we have everybody on the same platforms and operating with a minimum standard of technological efficiency, then we can start doing the learning,” he said. 

Students also need strong relationships with advisors who can guide them through the range of problems and questions that may arise, Dichard said. And schools need maximum support and guidance in responding to students’ varied needs. For example, he wants to see a law passed that prohibits minors from working during school hours, a practice that affected many of his students last spring. 

“I’ve got to have everybody at the table to learn,” he said. “What’s more important? The economy or our schools?”

The remote learning period gave educators a firsthand look at the inequities they knew existed but perhaps hadn’t witnessed in full, Allen said. Addressing those inequities will require a long-term, proactive approach, including utilizing community partnerships to continue supporting the whole family, and a curriculum review to ensure materials and assignments are inclusive. 

Jobel agreed. In the technology realm, for example, families need support that goes beyond mere troubleshooting, she said. Informed by community feedback, she’s incorporated technology classes into summer programming and hopes to offer additional training to

help students and families feel comfortable using a range of educational tools. 

“We’ve talked a lot about continuing education to help students and their families with technology,” she said. “A lot of them want to know more.” 

Read more about New Hampshire’s transition to remote learning: