Facing the COVID-19 Outbreak, Red Cloud Turns to Distance Learning

March 26, 2020


Red Cloud Empty Hallway




Weeks before the spread of the coronavirus had consumed the attention of communities across the country, Assistant Principal for Academics Christopher Smith was already thinking about what it might mean for Red Cloud.

“A friend who works at a school in San Francisco reached out and let me know that they were closing,” he said. “And I thought, this could happen for us eventually, too. So I started to do some research, looking at case studies of what was happening in Asia. I made a spreadsheet for myself of questions and decisions we would need to make if we switched to virtual learning.”

Then South Dakota announced its first cases of COVID-19, and Red Cloud's teachers and administrators, including Christopher, came together to take action. Instead of closing, they made the decision to take two days off of school, to give teachers time to prepare, and then to launch a full distance learning program for all grades, kindergarten through high school.

Red Cloud Administrators


“When I learned that we were going to be transitioning to virtual learning, I quickly pulled up the spreadsheet I’d started. The first thing we did was identify where we had gaps in Internet access, for both students and teachers, and make a plan for addressing those gaps,” said Christopher. “Once we did that, we started to ask questions about the structures we’d need to have in place to ensure student learning was still happening.”

Together as a team, Red Cloud’s school administrators developed a plan to teach students everything from biology and social studies to Lakȟóta language without ever stepping onto campus. Teachers came together for two long days of training and preparation, and developed lesson plans that could be used for online learning. And on Wednesday, March 18, distance learning at Red Cloud was launched.

Red Cloud Teacher Aaron


“It was a heavy lift, but it’s really working,” said Superintendent Moira Coomes. “Our attendance is really high, and our students are excited and logging in. Every day I send a letter home, and I can’t even express how proud I am of our students and of our staff, and our teachers and our administrators.”

Having access to the right technology has been “such a blessing” according to Moira. Several years ago, Red Cloud developed a plan to go “one-to-one”—essentially putting laptop computers into the hands of each and every Red Cloud student, from kindergarten through high school. Research has shown that the one-to-one approach can drive up test scores in everything from English to math and science, so Red Cloud invested in more affordable Google Chromebooks for each student over the course of several years. As a result, Red Cloud students have been able to continue their education, almost seamlessly, in the midst of a public health emergency.

New Ways of Learning

For teachers and students alike, distance learning has presented its own learning curve. Science teacher Isaac Piepszowski used a variety of approaches—from live discussions to interactive video presentations—to present material during the first few days of virtual learning, and then asked his students for feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

“I’ve got some really good information from the kids that I’m going to implement in the coming weeks,” he said.

Red Cloud Teacher Mando


Integrating hands-on work that can be done in a science lab is a challenge—but Isaac has already found some effective solutions.

“It’s definitely a challenge, because my classes are typically very hands-on and experimental,” he explained. “But I’ve found a good program that allows you to embed interactive questioning in a video. So I can pre-record myself running through a lab, and then pause it at certain points in the video and ask students to think critically about what’s going on in the experiment, and ask for feedback on what they are seeing. It’s been working, and I’m looking forward to doing more of those labs as we go forward.”

Red Cloud Teacher Tama


Although technology allows classes to happen, Red Cloud teachers are missing the face-to-face connections they have with their students on typical school days. But they are using the tools they have to maintain those relationships and stay in close touch.

“I try to make myself available for my students, to chat one-on-one on a video call in a more personalized manner,” said Aaron Pierre, another high school teacher. “I think it communicates, like we try to do every day here at Red Cloud, that each student matters, that their voices are counted, that their learning matters to us and that we're walking with them.”

And students are cheering their teachers on, too—with the knowledge that this is challenging for everyone.

Red Cloud Teacher Roger


“Yesterday I overheard a student talking to their teacher as I was walking around, saying, ‘you know, you’re doing great!’” said Moira. “Which is really just the flip side of this. Our students are really supportive and encouraging to their teachers. They know that their teachers are really trying.”

Providing Healthy Meals

One of the biggest hurdles in launching distance learning was finding a way to continue to provide fresh, nourishing breakfasts and lunches to Red Cloud students, who live many miles apart across the reservation and depend on school meals. For Moira, it was one of the most critical questions to be answered.

Red Cloud Lunch lady


“The big part of this effort is about education, but we all know that school is not just about the academic part—it’s about the social and community support as well,” said Moira. “We really needed to determine how to make sure our students stayed nourished.”

A plan was developed to use Red Cloud’s existing bus routes to deliver lunches. Working together with parish staff, lunch pick-up locations were set at Red Cloud churches across the reservation. Staff came together to train on how to load and deliver lunches while maintaining social distancing requirements, and then hit the road.

Red Cloud Lunch Delivery


“We’re doing this as a team,” said Moira. “The president of Red Cloud is going out and serving. We have our AmeriCorps members engaged, so they are getting their hours in while delivering food to students. And this is allowing us to continue to pay our bus drivers for some routes—which is really important to our community, to keep people employed and on payroll, while we provide an essential service. We’re now providing meals to our own students but also to any child who is in need. It’s taken a lot to organize it, but it’s really working.”

It took a village—but now all Red Cloud students are participating in distance learning, and continuing to learn and grow in the midst of this public health crisis.

Red Cloud Lunch Bus Load


“The day we launched our plan, it sort of felt like a game day—that we had put in all of this work and preparation, and now we were finally doing it. And I was running up and down the empty halls, just excited that we had kids online and learning,” said Christopher. “It's exciting that it's working. And now we have to make sure that we're improving and continuing to do it better and better, so that our students are getting the best possible learning experience that they can.”

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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